Under the American judicial system, people are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. Flaws in the criminal justice system, however, have led to the wrongful incarceration of innocent people, including Colorado residents. Since 1989, 324 people have been released from their prison sentences after DNA evidence has proved their innocence. Countless more people who were erroneously convicted of violent crimes or other offenses that they did not commit, wait behind bars.
While informants, false confessions and improper forensic testing have been involved in many wrongful conviction cases, eyewitness misidentification is the number one cause of this tragic phenomenon, according to the Innocence Project. In fact, false eyewitness identification and testimony played a role in 72 percent of exonerations. These surprising statistics have led the federal government and many states to reevaluate the eyewitness lineup process as well as the validity of eyewitness testimony altogether.
According to the American Bar Association, the process of eyewitness identification is affected by procedures used in the criminal justice system, as well as human nature. Erroneous techniques used in the criminal lineup process can be controlled to some degree; however, limitations of the human memory cannot be changed, but must be taken into account.
Flaws in lineup organization and administration are a significant cause of false identification. According to the ABA, an innocent person is chosen out of a lineup nearly 25 percent of the time. There are procedures that will minimize the risk of error, including double-blind administration of lineups. This occurs when the lineup administrator is unaware of the suspect's identity, preventing the administrator from giving out verbal or non-verbal hints as to who the suspect is. Lineups should be organized so that people do not stand out. For example, if the perpetrator was said to have had a beard, there should be more than one person in the lineup with a beard. Finally, the entire lineup process should be taped so that the procedure can be reviewed.
According to studies performed by Loftus and Ketchum, the human memory is inherently unreliable. Peoples' memories of crimes can be affected by the following:
- Racial disparity: Eyewitnesses are unable to accurately perceive and recall details of a human face that belongs to a race different from their own.
- Suggestion: When eyewitnesses learn new details of a case, they may unintentionally change their perception of the event to account for the new information.
- Time: As time passes, the accuracy of an eyewitness's account of what happened and his or her ability to choose a suspect out of a lineup decreases significantly.
- Environment: Factors, such as the amount of light present during the incident, how far the eyewitness was standing from the perpetrator and whether or not the suspect was wearing a mask, can all play a role in eyewitness misidentification.
Studies show that eyewitnesses are less likely to make an accurate identification when there was a deadly weapon used during the crime.
When to contact an attorney
Whether you have been wrongfully accused of a crime or there are other details to your unique criminal case, it is crucial to enlist the help of a criminal defense attorney. When your life is on the line, a defense lawyer with an extensive knowledge of Colorado law can ensure that you are given a fair trial.