Eyewitness Misidentification: What You Should Know

Regardless of what some may think, not everyone convicted of a crime is guilty. Issues with the U.S. justice system can lead to the erroneous conviction of an innocent person. After spending years, sometimes decades in prison, hundreds of people have been released from their sentence after further testing of evidence proved they were innocent of the crime.

How do innocent people end up behind bars? Eyewitness misidentification is one of the most common issues with misconvictions, according to the Innocence Project. A witness may select the wrong person from a physical or photo lineup, and that misselection leads to a wrongful conviction.

What happens in an eyewitness lineup?

When a witness looks through a lineup of potential suspects, certain procedural mistakes, environmental conflicts and human error can cause them to select the wrong person. Once a person is identified as the perpetrator in the lineup, the court is more inclined to convict them of the crime, regardless of whether they are actually guilty.

Issues with the lineup process often include the following:

  • Lineup administrators may intentionally or inadvertently suggest the witness select a certain person from the lineup
  • The lineup is organized in such a way that only one person matches the identification of the suspect
  • The witness is not told that the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup, which could make the witness feel as though they have to choose someone
  • Environmental factors, such as lighting, weather and the distance the witness was from the perpetrator, can influence the decision as well.

The administrator may also give physical cues, prompting the witness to choose a certain person from the lineup.

How to minimize the issue

Lineup administrators should have no prior knowledge of the crime and should follow a script when speaking with the witness. Furthermore, the lineup should contain more than one person who matches the description of the potential perpetrator. The court should tape the entire process so the judge and/or jury can review the footage if needed.