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Exonerations and Eyewitness Misidentifications

published on November 10, 2014, 2014 by Kristen Weisenberger

Exonerations and Eyewitness Misidentifications

Recently the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law released the 2012 update to the National Registry of Exonerations. Since January, 1989, 1050 individuals have been exonerated from crimes of which they were convicted at trial (82.2% jury trial, 7% bench trial, 1% undetermined) or of which they entered a plea of guilty (9.4%). 41 of the 1050 exonerated were cleared at least in part by DNA evidence and 709 of the 1050 exonerated were cleared without the help of DNA evidence.

For those people who should not have been convicted of a crime, the road to exoneration is lengthy. Of the 1050 persons exonerated, half had been in prison for more than nine years waiting to be freed. In 2012, 63 people were exonerated. The recent trend looks promising, with law enforcement and local prosecutors assisting in the exoneration process (with the exception for highly publicized or violent crimes.) While the exact reason for the trend is unknown, theorists suggest this may be due to changes in state laws regarding DNA and the creation of Conviction Integrity Units in several larger prosecutorial offices.

One of the variables examined by this study is causes for the false convictions. Causes include mistaken witness identification; false accusations; false confessions; false or misleading forensic evidence; or official misconduct. The greatest number of false confessions (22%) appear in homicide investigations. The greatest number of mistaken witness identifications (86%) were found in robbery cases. The greatest number of false accusations (78%) were found in child sex abuse cases.

Eyewitness misidentifications have been plaguing law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys for decades. There are a multitude of variables which can interfere with a witness’s ability to identify a suspect including trauma, fear, lighting, memory loss, and timing. The Innocence Project has developed recommendations for law enforcement to help limit misidentifications including blind administration (the officer showing the photo array does not know who the suspect is); lineup instructions (the witness should be told the suspect may not be here and the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result); confidence statement (after lineup witness should provide statement in his own words articulating how confident he is in his identification) ; and recording (identification procedures should be recorded). These simple measures will help ensure that the eyewitness identification is of the correct suspect and may save an innocent individual years wasted, fighting for his freedom from inside a 5×5 prison cell.

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