There are Concerns with Using Eyewitness Identification as the Sole Evidence in a Criminal Trial

February 10, 2023

Eyewitness identification is a crucial aspect of many criminal cases, as it can provide valuable evidence linking a suspect to a crime. However, despite its importance, eyewitness identification is also one of the most problematic areas of criminal investigation, as it is often prone to errors and biases. In this article, we will explore some of the problems with eyewitness identification in criminal cases, and discuss ways to improve the accuracy and reliability of this type of evidence.

One of the main problems with eyewitness identification is the phenomenon of “memory contamination.” This occurs when a witness’s memory of an event is influenced by information they receive after the fact, such as through media coverage, police questioning, or other eyewitnesses. For example, if a witness sees a suspect’s photograph in the newspaper, they may later identify that person as the perpetrator, even if they were not the actual perpetrator. This is known as the “misinformation effect” and it can lead to innocent people being mistakenly identified as criminals.

Another problem with eyewitness identification is the “own-race bias.” This occurs when people are better able to identify individuals of their own race than those of other races. This bias is thought to be related to the fact that people are exposed to more people of their own race than of other races, and therefore have more opportunities to learn and remember their features. However, this bias can lead to wrongful convictions, as it can result in suspects of other races being mistakenly identified by witnesses of a different race.

A third problem with eyewitness identification is the “confidence-accuracy discrepancy.” This occurs when a witness is highly confident in their identification of a suspect, but the identification is actually inaccurate. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as the witness being misled by the police or other eyewitnesses, or the witness having a poor view of the perpetrator at the time of the crime. The problem is that, in court, the witness’s confidence in their identification is often given more weight than the actual accuracy of the identification.

Eyewitness identification can also be affected by the pressure and stress of the situation. Research has shown that eyewitnesses are more likely to make mistakes when they are under stress, as it can interfere with their ability to pay attention, focus, and remember details. Additionally, eyewitnesses may also feel pressure to cooperate with the police and make an identification, even if they are not certain.

There are several ways to improve the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness identification. One way is to use double-blind lineup procedures, where the person administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is. This can help to prevent the administrator from unconsciously communicating their suspicion to the witness and influencing their identification. Another way is to use “blind” identification procedures, where the eyewitness does not see the suspect in person, but rather, only sees a photograph or video of the suspect. This can help to minimize the effects of own-race bias and the pressure of the situation on the eyewitness.

Another way to improve the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness identification is to use “sequential” lineups, where the eyewitness is presented with one suspect at a time, rather than all at once. This can help to reduce the pressure on the eyewitness and also minimize the effects of the “relative judgment” bias, where the eyewitness may choose the suspect who looks the most similar to the perpetrator, rather than the actual perpetrator.

Finally, it’s important to remember that eyewitness identification should always be viewed in the context of all the other evidence in a case. Eyewitness identification is not conclusive evidence, it is just one piece of evidence among many others. Therefore, it should never be the only evidence used to establish a suspect’s guilt.

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