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Problems with eyewitness testimony in criminal cases

Some New Mexico residents may believe that eyewitness identifications are the gold standard in a criminal investigation. This belief may be backed up by portrayals of clear witness identifications in television shows or movies. However, eyewitness identifications are often mistaken. In 69% of the wrongful convictions overturned by later DNA evidence that excluded the convicted person, mistaken identifications by an eyewitness were part of the criminal legal process.

Identification errors can be inadvertent or mistaken

In some of these cases, police or other officials interfered inappropriately with the process in order to compel a witness to identify a specific suspect, as has been exposed by criminal defense attorneys. However, in many other cases, the issue is less blatant than obvious police corruption or malfeasance. The witness, when brought in to view a lineup or a set of photos, may assume that the perpetrator must be present somewhere. If the non-suspects completing the lineup do not sufficiently resemble the witness’ description, the witness may select the person that looks the closest to their memories. Witnesses can also be influenced by subtle indications and unintentional clues given by lineup administrators and others in the room about who in the lineup is the suspect.

Memory is often fallible

In addition, human memory is far from perfect. Trauma can lead to greater confusion rather than greater clarity when remembering an incident, and many witnesses may have experienced only short-term views of the perpetrator. Eyewitnesses can also unintentionally be influenced by what they hear from other people about the case, whether investigators, fellow witnesses, victims or third parties.

They may also want to help the case move forward and correct an injustice by identifying a potential suspect. This issue is exacerbated when police do not seek or receive a statement indicating the witness’s level of confidence in their identification of a suspect. All of these problems can lead to or compound serious injustice in the criminal legal system.