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Debunking the Myth that Eyewitness Identification is Reliable

We’ve heard it in the news; we’ve seen it on our Facebook feeds; we’ve seen it on the latest Netflix documentary—There are innocent folks in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. The number one reason why? The admissibility of unreliable and inaccurate eyewitness testimony and misidentification. According to the Innocence Project , 358 people who had been convicted and sentenced to death since 1989 have been exonerated through DNA evidence. Of these, 71% had been convicted through eyewitness misidentification and had served an average of 14 years in prison before exoneration. Myth: Eyewitness Testimony is the Best Kind of Evidence, Stephen L. Chew, Samford University.

Historically figured as one of the most reliable pieces of evidence, eyewitness testimony is finally being recognized by psychologists and scientists alike as one of the most unreliable types of evidence. “Courts took very little notice of the problems associated with eyewitness identification until DNA evidence began to be used to exonerate criminal defendants, in some cases decades after they were convicted. In irrefutable cases of wrongful conviction, people both within and outside of the judiciary began to question the factors that led to each wrongful conviction. It became clear that the predominate cause was inaccurate eyewitness identification.” The Trouble With Eyewitness Identification in Criminal Cases, Greg Hurley, Knowledge and Information Services Analyst, National Center for State Courts.

Wisconsin’s own criminal appellate expert, professor Keith Findley, has called for reform and has outlined certain areas where change is needed in order for eyewitness accounts to be made reliable enough for use in criminal court:

• Only One Suspect per Procedure
• Proper Selection of “Fillers”
• Unbiased Witness Instructions
• Double-Blind Administration
• Prompt Recording of Confidence Statements
• Sequential Presentation
• Limit the Use of Show-ups
The Trouble With Eyewitness Identification in Criminal Cases, Greg Hurley, Knowledge and Information Services Analyst, National Center for State Courts.

To protect criminal defendants from wrongful convictions based on an eyewitness misidentification, it is important that the courts, and law enforcement, take notice of recent developments on the issue. Eyewitness testimony is favored by juries and is the most persuasive type of evidence next to DNA. Human memory is malleable, and always will be. Now that we recognize the issue, it’s time to implement and utilize some of Professor Findley’s solutions.

Were you or a loved one convicted based on eyewitness misidentification? Attorney Britteny LaFond (soon to be Britteny Koenig) specializes in Criminal Appeals, call her today at 920-739-9900 for your free consultation.