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Is Eyewitness Identification a Reliable Source of Evidence?

For many years, eyewitness identification has been used as a source of evidence in criminal cases across the country. Whether through a physical lineup or using photographs, witnesses have been asked to pick the perpetrator out of a line of potential suspects. Yet, research shows that flaws in the eyewitness lineup process have led to the wrongful conviction and incarceration of many people. According to the Innocence Project, 350 criminal cases have been overturned after DNA evidence proved the innocence of the convicted individual. Eyewitness misidentification was involved in 70% of those cases.

The problem lies in the fact that many law enforcement departments lack a standardized process when conducting eyewitness lineups. Lineup administrators may be familiar with details of the case, which could cause them to lead the witness into choosing a certain person out of the lineup. Furthermore, lineups that are not organized properly could prompt the witness to choose a certain person as well. For example, if the suspect was said to have long hair and a tattoo, there should be more than one person in the lineup that matches this description.

Some law enforcement departments have taken steps to correct this problem. Some require administrators to be blind to the facts of the case, read from a script and alert the witness that the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup. Lineup organization has improved and the entire process is recorded so the judge can ensure all proper steps have taken place.

This information is intended to educate and should not be taken as legal advice.