Eyewitness Testimony: Consequences of Wrongful Identifications

Eyewitness testimony

Richard Jones has recently been released from a Kansas prison. He spent 17 years serving a sentence for a crime he didn’t commit.

In 1999, Jones was picked out of a police lineup. He was identified by the victim of an attempted purse snatching who had her cell phone stolen from her. Little did she know she would end up sending the wrong man to prison for 17 years.

Because his first name is similar to the nickname police had intelligence for – Ricky – and because the victim picked him out of the lineup, Richard was convicted of aggravated assault. This was despite the fact that he had an alibi. He was throwing a party at his house at the time of the robbery. It was also despite the fact that the victim told police the assailant had a tattoo on his left arm and Richard has no such tattoo.

The story gets even crazier. While in prison, Jones was told by a fellow inmate that he hadn’t responded when the inmate had greeted him in the cafeteria. It turns out the man who might have been responsible – whose prison sentence Jones was unlawfully serving – was serving a prison sentence at the same time as Richard Jones.

This man’s name? Ricky Amos. In their booking photos, they look eerily similar. In addition, they are of similar build and height.

Eyewitness Lapses

According to the California Innocence Project, wrongful eyewitness identifications are one of the main causes of wrongful conviction. As many as 1 in 4 stranger eyewitness IDs are wrong.

Why are they still used as major evidence in court? Two reasons: they are a very powerful piece of evidence to present to a jury, and because of this law enforcement is more likely to have a closed case. Law enforcement wants a closed case.

Why are eyewitnesses unreliable?

  1. Witnesses have identified the assailant under high stress or anxiety.
    This diminishes the brain’s ability to accurately recall events. This isn’t the witness’s fault. It is human nature to try to fight or run when under stress. People simply don’t stop and look closely at the face of their attacker.
  2. Human brains don’t have the ability to record memories verbatim.
    A human brain isn’t a video recorder. Generally, we reconstruct memories after the fact.
  3. Victims focus on weapons, not faces.
    Part of the fight or flight response is to focus on the danger, not coolly assess the identity of the attacker.
  4. Suggestive eyewitness procedures.
    Law enforcement can, even without realizing it, make suggestive movements toward the perpetrator in a lineup. Another very flawed way of identification involves using a “show-up” where the victim is taken to the alleged attacker, who is in handcuffs or behind bars in order to identify him or her.Additionally, police sometimes use a lineup where more than one suspect is in the lineup, increasing the chances of being identified. Witnesses have been shown to be eager to please police officers by making a positive ID even though picking an ID from a group has been shown to be less accurate, but produce more results. Witnesses who are shown one photo at a time make fewer IDs but they are more accurate.
  5. Cross-racial eyewitnesses produce more false positive IDs.

Takeaway

Unfortunately for Richard Jones, even an alibi didn’t keep him from serving a sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. If you are charged – even if you are innocent and have an alibi – it’s important to get the help of professional legal counsel right away.

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