“Yes, I will never forget his face,” the eyewitness said as they identified the assailant who pulled the trigger, ending the victim’s life. This is a scene out of a book by Jed S. Rakoff titled “Our Lying Eyes.” Novels, movies and television programs show these pivotal courtroom scenes where the entire case comes to light and the guilty party is brought to justice. In these programs, it makes it seem like justice is so simple – black and white. But when it comes to eyewitness accounts, it isn’t.  

Is eyewitness identification always accurate? 

Unfortunately, eyewitness identification can frequently be wrong. So much so, in fact, that it is considered to be one of the most significant factors in wrongful convictions. 70 percent of the cases that the Innocence Project found to be wrongful convictions were linked to misidentifications. In one-third of those cases, there was a misidentification of the defendant multiple times. Other factors with other strong links to wrongful convictions were forensic expert testimony and false confessions. 

The irony behind so many incorrect identifications is that most of the time, the eyewitness has never been in contact with the person accused of perpetrating a crime. This is not someone who they may know. Because of the defendant’s actions, the witness is inclined to believe they might be capable of committing the crime. The fact that the witness does not know the perpetrator, the judge and jury often thinks there is no reason to falsely identify or accuse. Jurors have even been known to admit sympathy for the eyewitness, forced into witnessing such an evil act.  

How can so many eyewitnesses be wrong?

It can be easy to assume that many wrongful identifications from eyewitnesses come from intentional lying. But considering there is no benefit to lying, coupled with the possibility of being charged with perjury, this seems not to be the likely reason. Some of the most common reasons for misidentification occur because:

Improper police procedure

This can occur when the police prompt the witness to either pick a specific person by verbal prompts or reinforcement. They may also make claims that they know they have the perpetrator, but they just need the witness to point them out. In this instance, the witness will often pick the person that looks closest to what they remember, even if they are not sure it is the same person. 

Problems with perception and memory

A person’s memory and perception can be a tricky thing especially when it is trying to process something traumatic. Sometimes the perpetrator is perceived differently in different types of lights, distance or angle. The eyewitness may also not have gotten a long look or been distracted by fear. Another problem can be recalling the event which can lead to the mind changing the perception to either fit a preconceived notion or as a way to create a face for the trauma. Sometimes this false view can become ingrained in someone’s mind where they think a new perception is what they actually saw. 

Finally, it is possible to simply over-rate what you saw as a witness. Even if you think you get a look at a perpetrator, you may only be able to remember general characteristics that can be linked to a large part of the population, but you may still feel confident that you can differentiate and make your best guess. 

Witness misidentification is not the only problem that can arise during a criminal trial, which makes having the right legal counsel even more important. If you have been charged with a crime, get the representation you need to help fight common problems in court that can lead to wrongful conviction and help you put on the best possible defense.