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.
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 Scope of the Problem
Implementing Best Practices
The National Academy of Sciences, the nation’s premier independent scientific entity, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the U.S. Department of Justice, and many other organizations have recommended the following practices to improve the accuracy of witness identifications:
1. Blind/Blinded Administration: The officer administering the lineup is unaware of the suspect’s identity, or if that is not practical, the administrator is “blinded” using a technique such as the folder shuffle method that prevents him or her from seeing which lineup member is being viewed by the witness.
2. Instructions: Prior to the procedure, the witness should be instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup.
3. Proper Use of “Non-Suspect” Fillers: Non-suspect “fillers” used in the lineup should match the witness’s description of the perpetrator.
4. Confidence Statements: Immediately after an identification is made the eyewitness should provide a statement, in his or her own words, that articulates the level of confidence in the identification.
National Picture on Eyewitness ID Reform: 19 states have uniformly adopted best practices either by statute, court action or voluntary statewide implementation.
Costs & Resources: Of the 12 states that enacted statutes requiring the adoption of eyewitness identification reforms every fiscal note estimated costs to be “none” or “minimal.” The only cost is training, which the Innocence Project has already funded. In addition, the Innocence Project offers online training videos, policy writing guides and other resources to assist agencies with implementation of best practices.
What is the Solution?
In June 2015 the Innocence Project met with law enforcement leaders from the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), Minnesota Police Chiefs Association, Minnesota Sheriffs Association, Minnesota County Attorneys Association and other organizations to discuss a plan for voluntary statewide implementation of best practices. In January 2016 the Innocence Project and BCA hosted two statewide training sessions in St. Paul and Mankato attended by 160+ officers from 44 different agencies. We asked attendees to fill out surveys about current practices in their agencies.