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Eyewitness Misidentification

Eyewitness Misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions. Nearly three-quarters of exonerations due to DNA testing can be at least partially traced back to an eyewitness misidentification.

Leaning heavily on the memories of those who have witnessed a crime — which over 30 years of research and science have repeatedly shown can be unreliable and affected by a number of factors — is sending innocent people to prison.

 

We have to mitigate these mistakes on the front end, with meaningful reform, like the legislation we pushed forward in Nebraska this year, which will allow eyewitness identification experts to testify in front of a jury, and explain the factors that might make an identification less accurate.

Did you know that nearly all DNA-based exonerations in Missouri have involved an eyewitness misidentification?

From problems with lighting at the time of the crime, to the use of a weapon which takes away a witness’s ability to focus on facial features, to cross-racial identification and misleading lineups — there’s a lot that can go wrong with an eyewitness identification.

Test your powers of perception with the Monkey Business Illusion by Daniel Simmons.

Factors that affect the integrity of eyewitness identification 

AMENDING A
FLAWED PROCEEDURE

This year we brought on a new supervising attorney Emily Danker-Feldman, who has led the charge of tapping into our waitlist to find those cases in Missouri with eyewitness misidentification issues.

From there, thanks to a two-year federal Bloodsworth Post-Conviction DNA Testing Assistance Grant received in partnership with the University of Missouri, we now have the funds we’ll need to pursue DNA testing in these cases and potentially free more innocent people. Danker-Feldman is leading the wrongful conviction class at the University of Missouri’s law school, where students help to sort, classify, investigate, and litigate these eyewitness misidentification cases.

“We have to narrow it down to cases where there is still physical evidence that exists that could be tested and potentially exonerate the defendant,” Danker-Feldman said. “As part of this process, we’re also using it as a chance to develop a database related to factors that influence potential misidentification.”

Thanks to the Bloodworth Post-Conviction grant, together with the clinic at the University of Missouri Law School, we’ve been able to review 230 cases from our waiting list.

Thanks to generous grants — and donors like you — we’ve been able to review thousands of pages of case documents, and we’ll eventually be able to pay for DNA testing and litigation. With the eyewitness identification factors we’re tracking, we can help educate future advocacy and legislative priorities.

Experts recommend the “Core-Four” reforms

“Double-blind” procedure

Both the administrator of the line-up and the eyewitness should not know who the suspect is. This prevents the administrator from providing any cues that might influence the eyewitness.

Instructions

Police should give instructions to reduce the risk that the eyewitness feels compelled to make an identification. The eyewitness should be told that the perpetrator may or may not be present in the line-up and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether an identification is made.

Composing a Lineup

Police should include other individuals (“fillers”) in the line-up and pick them based on their resemblance to the eyewitness’s description, not to the suspect. The suspect should not noticeably stand out (as in the cases of Richard Jones and Rodney Lincoln).

Confidence Statements

Right after the line-up, the eyewitness should provide a statement, in their own words, about their level of confidence in the identification.

Want to learn more about Eyewitness Misidentification? Check out these resources.
How does your state stack up when it comes to policies protecting against eyewitness misidentification? 

What Can You Do to Help?

Eyewitness misidentification is a human mistake — meaning we all have the power to resist against wrongful convictions caused by them.

Contact your local police or sheriff department to voice support for reforms like use of a double-blind eyewitness procedure, lineup instructions, and confidence statements from the eyewitness.

Visit our Join the Revolution page to find resources, contact information, and a sample letter to make it easy.
Hundreds still wait for their cases to be reviewed. Your donations help fund DNA testing, litigation, and education efforts. Will you join the resistance against wrongful convictions, and support us in this critical work?

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©2020 MIDWEST INNOCENCE PROJECT

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MIDWEST INNOCENCE PROJECT

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