How witnesses may misidentify their attackers

August 5, 2022
How witnesses may misidentify their attackers

People throughout the nation may not realize that not everyone convicted of a crime is guilty. The Innocence Project reported more than 375 people were released from prison after further testing proved their innocence. Eyewitness misidentification is the leading factor that has sent countless innocent people to prison. In fact, 69% of cases involving wrongful conviction involved some types of suspect misidentification.

Many of these situations involved rape cases, or other cases where the victim experienced serious trauma. Not only are there flaws in eyewitness lineups that can lead someone to select the wrong person from a line of suspects, but there are constraints on a victim’s ability to remember a traumatic situation.

Flaws in an eyewitness lineup

In a traditional lineup, the administrator has previous knowledge of the case. Yet, this knowledge can inadvertently sway a witness to choose a particular person from the lineup. Furthermore, fillers used in the lineup may not match the victim’s description of the suspect, keeping them from getting chosen.

Ideally, the lineup administrator should be ‘blind,’ or have no knowledge of the case. Also, the lineup should contain several people that match the description of the suspect. For example, if the perpetrator has a tattoo and a beard, there should be more than one person in the lineup with a tattoo and a beard.

Limitations of human memory

Studies show that victims of serious crimes have limitations when attempting to remember specific details about their attackers identity. The memory gap increases if the perpetrator has a weapon or is of a different race than the victim. Misinterpreting these small, specific details about a person’s identity can cause a victim to choose an innocent person from the lineup. Other constraints include the following:

  • The amount of light present during the crime
  • Whether the victim consumed any drugs or alcohol
  • The amount of time that has passed from when the crime occured

Humans can fill in memory gaps with misinformation told to them by a third-party, and over time, can believe the misinformation is true. All of these things can lead to the wrong charge and conviction of an innocent person.


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