The National Registry of Exonerations has recorded more than 2,000 people who have been exonerated of the crimes for which they were convicted. This means these people spent countless years in prison for a crime they did not commit. These are not people who got off on some legal technicality; rather, they are actually innocent people.
How does this happen? One of the culprits is eyewitness identification. Testimony from a victim or a witness positively identifying a defendant is compelling testimony. It is hard for jurors to ignore and each year tens of thousands of people are convicted based at least partially on eyewitness identification.
Research has revealed that eyewitness identification is wrong approximately 50% of the time. In cases where defendants were exonerated on DNA evidence, approximately 75% of those cases involved faulty eyewitness identification.
Does this mean we should do away with eyewitness identification? No. What it means is that law enforcement needs to change the manner in which witnesses are asked to make the identification. Changes need to be made to make the identification process less suggestive.
Many large jurisdictions have “modernized” their techniques, but many smaller jurisdictions have not adopted the best practices for eyewitness identification. The lesson to be learned is that all eyewitness identifications should be viewed with healthy skepticism and the methods used in the identification should be compared to the “best practices” standards.