Eyewitness testimonies: more harm than good

To find a defendant guilty in a trial in our criminal justice system, eye witness identification is given a significant amount of weight. It can, at times, be enough to convict the defendant of a crime and send them to prison. The problem with this is that eyewitness identification is not always accurate. At times, the eyewitness can identify the innocent defendant as the criminal and get them convicted of a crime they never committed.

The Innocent Project takes up cases of wrongly convicted prisoners and helps them get their freedom back. Research done by The Innocent Project shows that out of the 230 people that were exonerated because of DNA testing, 179 people had eyewitness misidentification involved in the trial. Out of the misidentification cases, in 38 percent of the cases, the defendant was misidentified by multiple eyewitnesses, and 50 percent of them used the eyewitness testimony as the main evidence against the defendant. In addition, 48 percent of the cases where the actual criminal was later caught by using DNA evidence, these criminals had gone on to commit multiple crimes after the previous one that an innocent person had to serve time for.

This data makes you wonder about the many defendants that were convicted of a crime that they did not commit because of eyewitness misidentification but could not be proven innocent as there wasn’t enough DNA present or the evidence was lost or destroyed. It also makes you think of the criminals that actually committed crimes going about freely in their day to day life, while an innocent person is serving time for them. How is that fair?

An example of how eyewitness misidentification can ruin an innocent person’s life is the Troy Davis case. It was in Savannah, Ga. where he was identified by nine eye witnesses that say they saw him shoot a police officer in a restaurant parking lot. Several eye witnesses have recanted their word since then, but nothing has been done. He has even come hours near being executed, but was granted a stay at the last minute. In another case, Luis Diaz was accused of rape by eight victims. Later, two of them recanted their statements, and he was then found innocent in 2005 because of DNA testing.

So what can be done about the eye witness misidentification? What can be done to ensure that no innocent defendant is sent to prison over a crime they did not commit? What can be done to ensure that a criminal does not go free while an innocent person serves time for the perpetrator’s crime?

In some situations, the eye witness misidentification occurs in the lineup stage, where the eye witness has to identify who they think the culprit is. The problems here are that the administrator knows who the suspect is and may provide unintentional cues to the eyewitness about who to pick. Eye witnesses also sometimes assume that the perpetrator has to be present in the lineup, and hence chooses an innocent person for the sake of making a choice. The fillers may not look anything like what the eye witness said, and the eye witness will only choose the person that most closely resembled their description. The last problem is that, in the report, it may not be mentioned that the eyewitness was unsure when making a selection.

To avoid this, as suggested by The Innocent Project, there could be a double-blind line up procedure, in which the administrator is not aware of who the suspect is. This way the administrator cannot give hints on who the suspect is.  They can ensure that the fillers all look like the description given by the eyewitness and that the eyewitness is informed that the perpetrator may not be present in the lineup. Also, they should make sure to report the level of how certain the eyewitness was with their selection. This can help reduce the chances of an innocent person being sent to prison and having their life ruined. The other important thing that can be done to help is make the jury aware about the reliability of an eyewitness testimony, so it can prevent wrongful convictions.

I think that if all these changes were made in our criminal justice system, it might be a step forward in preventing innocent people from being sent to prison. After all, the criminal justice system is there to bring crime rates down by punishing the criminals and removing them from the streets, and not to just put people behind bars.

Leave a Reply