It Wasn’t Me – How Reliable is Witness Identification?

By: James Davis

People get it wrong all the time, and it is crucial to point out this unreliability if eyewitness identification is involved in your criminal case. You are charged with a crime and someone claims that they saw you do it.  Does that mean that the case is a slam-dunk, and there is no way to successfully fight the charges?

Absolutely not.

Reams of data and countless real-world examples show that witness identification is incredibly unreliable.  Just because someone claims to have seen something does not mean that they are able to accurately identify what they saw in a reliable way.  That is particularly true when it comes to remembering faces from an event and picking out the face at a later time.  People get it wrong all the time, and it is crucial to point out this unreliability if eyewitness identification is involved in your criminal case.

The Data
Various focused research studies from the past few decades have found that witness identification is wrong anywhere from 35% to 90% of the time.   That means that even if the most generous studies are believed, three to four out of every ten cases involve misidentification.  The real misidentification rate is likely much higher.

For example, in one high-profile study, thousands of “witnesses” were shown a 13 second clip of a woman being attacked.  Near the end of the clip the attacker runs directly into the camera, with his face clearly and easily visible.  The witnesses were then shown a lineup of six men and instructed to identify which (if any) of the men was the attacker.  Researchers checked on the accuracy.

What did they find?

Staggeringly, only 14% of witnesses correctly identified the criminal.  That means that 86% of the eyewitnesses were incapable of accurately picking out the face–basically the same as would be expected if everyone simply guessed.

Notoriously Unreliable 
Witness identification is so unreliable because accuracy hinges on a wide range of factors.  The lighting at the time, the distance from the subject, existence of a weapon, personal fear, time delay from the incident and identification, format of police lineup, and countless other factors have all been shown to influence the ability of one to provide identification information that is in any way reliable.

On top of that, human memory is not a static system.  What someone remembers at one point can literally change over time based on various influences and suggestions.  That means that even when the individual honestly believes and actually remembers some event or face, that memory may be entirely wrong.  In other words, witnesses are not lying, but accurate identification is simply incredibly difficult for the human mind.

It is critical that eyewitness testimony be strongly challenged in your criminal case.  If this is an issue that might after your situation, please get in touch with the criminal defense attorney at the Law Office of James Davis to ensure this unreliable evidence is properly addressed.

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