If you’ve watched any courtroom drama, you have no doubt watched a scene where a witness takes the stand and identifies the perpetrator. Television shows and movies treat it as if that closes the case, because nothing is more reliable than someone who was at the scene of the crime as it happened.
Few things could be further from the truth. In reality, eyewitnesses are often wrong and make many mistakes. Studies show that it does not even matter if they’re confident or not; there is not a significant difference in accuracy. Eyewitnesses make mistakes and false identifications all the time, and it puts innocent people behind bars.
Why does this happen? Here are six potential reasons:
1. The person who committed the crime wore a disguise.
A disguise does not have to be elaborate. Something as simple as a wig could be enough to throw a witness off. Remember, they’re often watching the event take place very quickly, with little to no warning.
2. The witness was under extreme stress.
For instance, a person who a suspect forced to lie on the floor during a bank robbery may fear for their life. Stress makes it harder to process and retain information accurately. After the fact, the witness may struggle to recall what the robber really looked like.
3. Someone used weapons during the crime.
This relates to the above, noting that stress makes accounts less reliable. Weapons increase stress levels. They also serve as a distraction. The witness may forget the person’s face because they really spent the entire incident watching a gun.
4. Officials rushed the identification.
A witness may feel pressure to identify the alleged criminal very quickly. This is not something officials should rush, but, if they do, it can lead to mistakes. A brief viewing time calls into question the accuracy of the identification, even if the witness feels confident.
5. The suspect and the witness have different ethnic backgrounds.
Unfortunately, people often struggle to identify people of other races than their own. Even when making an honest effort, they may mix up two other people of the same race. This is especially problematic when they only saw the suspect at the crime scene for a brief moment.
6. The suspect doesn’t have distinctive characteristics.
Many people appear unremarkable and do not stand out from one another. Without something like abnormal height, distinctive hair or visible tattoos, witnesses can’t always make accurate identifications. Someone who blends into a crowd also blends into a lineup.
When they get it wrong
Have you been accused of a crime because an eyewitness picked you out? It’s important to know how inaccurate these claims are and what legal options you have.