Leading causes of eyewitness misidentification in New York

Although thousands of people are sent to prison on criminal convictions each year, not all of them are guilty of a crime. According to the Innocence Project, 321 people in the U.S. have been exonerated from their prison sentences as a result of DNA evidence. Eyewitness misidentification played a role in approximately 72 percent of these cases, making it the most common contributor to wrongful convictions. Of the 321 exoneration cases, 29 occurred in New York. As those exonerated New York citizens enjoy their freedom, many people struggle to comprehend how the legal system could send innocent people to prison.

In 1989, an innocent man was convicted of raping and strangling a 16-year-old girl in upstate New York. According to the Innocence Project, several sketchy eyewitness identifications claimed to have seen the man's truck on the same street where the young girl was last seen walking. Although the fingerprints and tire prints collected at the crime scene did not match the man's samples, he was convicted of the crime and sentenced to serve 25 years to life in prison. He was released nearly 20 years later after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

In 1985, an Italian-American man was wrongfully convicted of a burglary and rape, which resulted in a sentence of 20 to 50 years in prison. His conviction was based primarily on eyewitness misidentification, as the victim and her husband both chose the innocent man's picture out of a photo lineup. The victim's husband later chose the same man out of a physical lineup. DNA evidence extracted from semen found on the victim's sweatpants later exonerated the man after he had spent 21 years in prison.

Common causes of eyewitness misidentification

Eyewitness misidentification stems from a combination of systematic errors and human memory unreliability, both of which can result in a wrongful conviction and harsh penalties for the accused. Here are a few of the most common issues that can lead to wrongful eyewitness testimony and misidentification, as reported by the American Bar Association and the Innocence Project:

  • Racial disparity: In 40 percent of cases involving eyewitness misidentification in DNA exoneration cases, cross racial identification was named as an influential factor. Credible studies show that people are less likely to accurately identify a face that is of a different race than their own.
  • Lineups: Studies show that when the prime suspect is left out of a lineup, around a third of people identified are innocent. Lineup administrators may unintentionally encourage the victim to choose the suspect out of a lineup. People chosen to stand in a lineup should look similar. For instance, if the suspect had a beard, there should be more than one person in the lineup with a beard.
  • Stress: People, who are exposed to highly stressful situations, especially if a weapon is used during a crime, are often unable to remember crucial details of a person's identity.
  • Time lapse and environmental variables: The amount of time that has passed since the crime occurred, as well as details including poor lighting, distance and whether the suspect wore a disguise, can all contribute to an inaccurate identification.

Research performed by Loftus and Ketchum, according to PBS.org, found that the human memory is also susceptible to suggestion, and that a person's recollection of events may change as they learn new details pertaining to the case.

Find an attorney

People who face criminal charges involving eyewitness testimony or who have been chosen from an eyewitness lineup may want to speak to an attorney. A criminal defense lawyer can help you explore all of your legal options and guide you through the entire process.