Eyewitness Misidentification: The Scary Truth

Gavel and books depicting Eyewitness Misidentification

Can you imagine being on death row for a crime you did not commit? What if the reason why you were there was eyewitness misidentification?

Let’s take a close look at the case of Kirk Bloodsworth. He has the distinction of being the first exoneree from death row.

In 1984, a 9-year-old girl named Dawn Hamilton disappeared in the woods near her home, where she had gone to find her friends. Her body was found in the woods; beaten, sexually abused, and bludgeoned to death.

When police began to investigate this crime, they questioned the last two people to have seen her alive. They were two boys whom she had asked for the whereabouts of her friends, but who had declined to help.

Later, they saw her walking with a strange man. That man, they said, was tall and thin – about 6 feet, 5 inches – with curly blonde hair and deeply tanned.

Kirk Bloodworth was only 6 feet tall, weighed well over 200 lbs., and had red hair.

The Composite Sketch and the Eyewitness Misidentification

However, the boys had put together a composite sketch from what was called an “identikit.” There were only about 25 selections for each feature. From the identikit, a sketch artist put together the composite sketch, which was released on television.

After the composite sketch was released, one of Kirk’s neighbors called in to say that it looked like him. When police picked him up for questioning, he didn’t make the connection. He was nervous about a bag of marijuana in his shoe and assumed it was about that.

But when police had him in custody, they told the families of the boys Kirk’s name. One of the boys had identified him. The other said it wasn’t him, but changed his story later on.

Additionally, tThe role the media played didn’t help either: one of the witnesses against Kirk in his trial stated that he had first identified Kirk “on television.”

On Death Row for 8 Years

For 8 years, Kirk was on death row. Then, he was finally exonerated by DNA evidence. Semen left on the panties of the victim was tested and it didn’t match Kirk’s DNA.

Several years later, they tested the sample against a database. It turns out, the man who killed Dawn Hamilton had been in prison with Kirk Bloodsworth. They had lifted weights together.

DNA Evidence and Exoneration

The majority of cases where DNA evidence has exonerated someone who has been falsely convicted show that eyewitness misidentification was at fault. And there are good reasons why:

  • Witnesses are shown photos lineups where the suspect’s photo is marked in some way to differentiate him from the rest.
  • Suspects are routinely put into multiple lineups which witnesses are shown. When the same person is put into another lineup for a witness to see, they tend to guess that means that person is guilty.
  • Police give confirmation to witnesses when they choose the “right person.”
  • Hesitant identifications are portrayed in court as being very confident.
  • Eyewitness identification is itself highly subject to . In addition, they often substantially change their description of a perpetrator after learning more about a suspect. Also, the mind doesn’t work like a tape recorder and memories of events are highly influenced by the feelings a particular witness is experiencing.

Reforms Are Needed

Here are the reforms suggested by the Innocence Project, which have been adopted by different states already. They are shown to decrease misidentifications.

  1. Blind Administration – Officers administering a lineup must be unaware of who the suspect is.
  2. Instructions – Witnesses should be told that the perpetrator (or suspect) may or may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue if they don’t pick someone in order to reduce pressure. Witnesses should be told that administrators don’t know who the suspect is and can’t be looked to for guidance.
  3. Confidence Statements – Witnesses should write or dictate a statement about how confident he or she is in the identification made.
  4. Recording – Identification should be recorded on video and/or audio as often as possible.


Because human memory is so faulty, and the life of a potentially innocent person is in the hands of a witness, reforms need to be made to ensure that eyewitnesses aren’t being led or coached into making an identification.

If you are facing charges for a crime you did not commit, an experienced defense attorney by your side could make all the difference.

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