Eyewitness errors can lead to wrongful convictions

Eyewitness testimony might not always be reliable in cases in New York. A man in California, who was identified both by the victim and witness in a rape case, was exonerated when DNA evidence indicated he did not commit the crime. He had spent eight years in prison.

A co-director of the California Innocence Project says that mistaken identifications can be reinforced over time. Often, an eyewitness identifies the photo of a person who most looks like the person who committed the crime. The same person is then picked out of the lineup. In the California case, the victim initially identified the man from photos. At the time, she said she was 70 percent sure, but by the time of the trial, she said she was 100 percent sure. A witness who made the same identification was of a different race than the man. Studies have shown that cross-racial identifications tend to be even more inaccurate.

Some jurisdictions have begun using double-blind lineups. In these, the detective does not know who the suspect is either, and this has been demonstrated to lead to greater accuracy with no drop in overall identifications.

A person who has been accused of a crime in which eyewitness identification is a part of the evidence may want to work with an attorney to determine whether this evidence could be disputed. A person might be misidentified because a witness has poor eyesight or due to weather conditions among other reasons. There could be issues with other evidence as well. For example, lab samples could be mishandled and contaminated. Evidence might also have been illegally obtained, and this could result in it being dismissed. A person may also want to discuss with an attorney whether accepting a plea bargain might be the right decision. This involves pleading guilty and usually getting a lighter sentence.