As one legal expert has commented, “When someone is accused of a crime he did not commit, two people are trapped on the dark side of justice, while the real perpetrator remains free.” It is in everyone’s interest that all citizens do everything possible to avoid erroneous identifications. Any time a mistaken identification leads to a wrongful conviction, an egregious, almost irreversible, harm is wrought on another innocent person.
Mistaken eyewitness identification occurs when the victim of a crime or eyewitness to a crime mistakenly identifies another individual as the perpetrator of a crime although this person is guiltless and did not commit the crime.
Mistaken identification is a common problem historically that persists despite years of research and study into its underlying causes, as well as the implementation of criminal justice reforms to prevent, or, at least, minimize it.
Human beings are imperfect and when the experience of the crime itself is factored in along with those intangible factors of the criminal justice system, there are many reasons that an imperfect or mistaken identification of the perpetrator is made by a victim or eyewitness.
Improper, even suggestive police tactics may cause misidentification. Often it is simply an honest mistake. A victim may mistakenly identify an offender from a lineup.
Mistaken identification may occur during the following events:
- lineups where a victim or eyewitness is shown a group of individuals;
- showups where the victim or eyewitness is shown a single person, often near the scene of the crime;
- photo displays where a victim or eyewitness is shown a group of photos;
- voice lineups where a victim or eyewitness listens to different voices;
- in-court identifications where a victim or eyewitness is asked to identify the perpetrator in the courtroom during the trial.
The effects of any misidentification may become magnified throughout a criminal proceeding. Once a witness makes an incorrect identification at an early stage of the proceeding, such as a lineup, this witness may attach himself or herself to this identification as reality or fact and continually identify the same person wrongly throughout the trial.
Legal experts consider mistaken identification to be caused by two groups of factors referred to as estimator variables and system variables. Estimator variables are factors outside the control of police while system variables are factors that may be controlled by police during the investigation.
While optimal police protocols may not change whether a witness viewed a perpetrator under optimal conditions, sound investigative techniques may minimize the chance and risk that victims and eyewitnesses have been intentionally or negligently subjected to police investigative procedures that compromise the quality of any identification.
As a California Criminal Trial Lawyer with over 40 years of courtroom experience, John Patrick Dolan has handled everything from traffic tickets to death penalty murder cases. Mr. Dolan is a recognized California State Bar Certified Specialist in Criminal Law and a true courtroom veteran of domestic violence defense cases. Call us today at (760) 775-3739 or find out more online here.