John Mulvey, Attorney at law
(513) 721-0001
Serving Greater Cincinnati,
Southwestern Ohio and Northern Kentucky 

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Eyewitness Identification 

- Falsely identified, wrongfully convicted.  

Eyewitness testimony carries a lot of weight in the courtroom, particularly if the witness seems credible.  Mistaken, inaccurate and false eyewitness testimony is the largest cause of wrongful convictions.

How to make witnesses more reliable -  The Economist March 3rd 2012

Witnesses may feel under pressure to identify someone as the guilty party, even if they are not sure. Or they could be worried about making a mistake. 

A number of factors can reduce the accuracy of eyewitness identifications. Here are some of them:

  • Extreme witness stress at the crime scene or during the identification process.
  • Presence of weapons at the crime (because they can intensify stress and distract witnesses).
  • Use of a disguise by the perpetrator such as a mask or wig.
  • Brief viewing times at the lineup or during other identification procedures.
  • A racial disparity between the witness and the suspect.
  • A lack of distinctive characteristics of the suspect such as tattoos or extreme height.

After more than three decades of laboratory studies, experts have found that a few simple changes in police lineup procedures improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.

Eyewitness evidence: Improving its probative value. 

Wells, G. L., Memon, A, & Penrod, S. (2006).  Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 7, 45-75.

“The criminal justice system relies heavily on eyewitnesses to determine the facts surrounding criminal events. Eyewitnesses may identify culprits, recall conversations, or remember other details. An eyewitness who has no motive to lie is a powerful form of evidence for jurors, especially if the eyewitness appears to be highly confident about his or her recollection. In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, the eyewitness’s account is generally accepted by police, prosecutors, judges, and juries.”

“DNA exoneration cases can only represent a fraction, probably a very small fraction, of the people who have been convicted based on mistaken eyewitness identication.”

  • In a large percentage of the old cases (in which convicted persons claim to have been misidenti?ed) the biological evidence for DNA testing has deteriorated, has been lost, or has been destroyed.
  • Virtually all DNA exoneration cases involved sexual assault because those are the cases for which de?nitive biological evidence (contained in semen) is available to trump the mistaken identication.
  • Such biological evidence is almost never available for murders, robberies, drive-by shootings, and other common crimes that have relied on eyewitness identi?cation evidence.

“In effect, a criminal event involving an eyewitness leaves a trace in the brain of the eyewitness. The “memory as trace evidence” metaphor has rich implications. Like physical evidence, memory trace evidence can be contaminated, lost, destroyed, or otherwise made to produce results that can lead to an incorrect reconstruction of the event in question. Like physical trace evidence, the manner in which memory trace evidence is collected can have important consequences for the accuracy of the results.”

“Eyewitness evidence is typically collected by non-specialists who have little or no training in human memory.” 

“Science has not been the backbone of police procedures for collecting, preserving, and interpreting eyewitness evidence. Whereas the justice system’s analysis of physical evidence, especially biological traces, has advanced rapidly in the past decade, the analysis eyewitness evidence has languished.”

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