Misidentification is the number one cause of wrongful convictions. Whether by perjury or eyewitness/victim error, innocent people are spending time behind bars for crimes they did not commit. The criminal justice system puts a lot of faith in eyewitness testimony, but there is no way to guarantee their testimony is fact. Only after innocence is proven is it made evident that eyewitness testimony was erroneous. Due to this fact, it is not possible to know the number of wrongful convictions by mistaken identity, because many who are mistakenly identified will never have a chance to prove their innocence.

Furthermore, the scope of the problem cannot be known because of instances where prosecutors drop the case or in cases where people are acquitted after reversals on appeal. While appellate decisions are published and readily available online, the problem with trial acquittals or dropped cases, is that they are not systematically catalogued and made public, so there is no way to be sure of the role of eyewitness testimony in those cases.

The Facts


Mistaken witness identification has been identified problem for many years.  In June of 2000, an analysis by the Center on Wrongful Convictions found that of 51 exonerations by DNA testing in the United States and Canada, 76.1% had been based in whole or in part on eyewitness identification testimony. Another study of 86 exonerated capital cases by the Center on Wrongful Convictions found:

  • Of the 86 cases, eyewitness testimony played a role in 46 (53.5%)
  • In 33 cases (38.4%), eyewitness identification was the only evidence
  • Of the 46 cases that involved eyewitness testimony, 32 cases only had one eyewitness (69.6%), while the remaining 14 cases had multiple eyewitnesses (30.28%)
  • In 19 cases (41.3%), the eyewitnesses were strangers, in 9 cases (19.6%), they were non-accomplice acquaintances

Unfortunately, problems with eyewitness misidentification continue.  Here are some recent statistics:

  • Mistaken witness identification was a contributing factor in 545 of the total 1,700 exonerations documented since 1989;
  • An element of mistaken witness identification exists in over 30% of all exonerations on record;
  • A stunning 68% of all DNA exonerations have been based in part on mistaken witness identification;
  • 25 of the total 115 death row exonerations later overturned list mistaken witness identification as a contributing factor.

At this time, Minnesota is one of the states without a statewide best practice, policy or statute addressing eyewitness identification procedures.

In October of 2014, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the nation’s premier scientific entity, issued a groundbreaking report settling many long-debated areas of police practice. The report identified a set of reform procedures, which have been promoted by the Innocence Project and network project members since the inception of its work in this area of police practice.*

The Remedies

There are multiple remedies to minimize the number of wrongful convictions by mistaken identification. The most important remedy is to reform eyewitness identification procedures.

Sequential lineups is one technique that has been increasingly used in eyewitness identification procedures. In a sequential lineup, the witness is shown lineup members one at a time. The witness has to identify whether or not the person is the perpetrator before they can move on to the next person. This method differs from the traditional procedure of the witness viewing all members at once (simultaneous lineup). The sequential lineup procedure has proven to be more accurate because it forces witnesses to use an absolute judgment strategy rather than a relative judgment strategy (where they compare all the members and simply choose the best match from the group). After all, it is certainly possible that the perpetrator is not in the lineup at all.

Double-blind is another technique in lineup procedures. In double-blind procedures, neither the administrator nor the witness know who the suspect is. This prevents the administrator from influencing the witness by unintentional or intentional clues to the identity of the suspect.

Specific instruction to witnesses includes spoken instructions from the administrator to the eyewitness. These instructions are meant to deter the witness from feeling forced to make a selection from the lineup. Specific instructions also prevent the witness from looking at the administrator for feedback during the procedure; they are made aware that the administrator does not know who the suspect is and that he or she will not be able to assist the witness during the procedure. One recommended instruction is that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup.

Resources from the U.S. Department of Justice

Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement
Eyewitness Evidence: A Trainer’s Manual for Law Enforcement

Additional Resources

Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, a report from the National Academies’ Committee on Scientific Approaches to Understanding and Maximizing the Validity and Reliability of Eyewitness Identification in Law Enforcement and the Courts

*See more at: http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes-wrongful-conviction/eyewitness-misidentification#sthash.WYMAWxhE.dpuf

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