The United States judicial system pronounces everyone is presumed innocent until such time, if ever, proven guilty. While some criminal offenders in Iowa are treated fairly, given due process and sentenced accordingly, there are a number of others who are wrongfully convicted and are erroneously sent to prison. Since 1989, 317 people, many victims of mistaken eyewitness identification have been exonerated due to DNA testing after their conviction, according to the Innocence Project.
A study performed by Loftus and Doyle in 1992 found that trials including eyewitness statements led to a guilty verdict 72 percent of the time. In cases where no eyewitnesses were present, the guilty verdict decreased to 18 percent. Researchers believe that mistaken eyewitness identification is a result of human perception error, poor visibility, faulty memory and poor lineup practices.
Just last year, a Kansas man was set free after being exonerated for a robbery and rape crime that he did not commit. DNA evidence pointed to the real perpetrator of the crime who is currently serving time in an Iowa jail for another incident of robbery and forcible rape. The victim had identified the wrong man after hearing the suspect’s voice. Although she could not pick the man out of a photo lineup, he was still convicted of the crime.
Causes of eyewitness identification errors
Countless studies have investigated the root causes of eyewitness identification errors in hopes of avoiding wrongful convictions in the future. The Innocence Project has found that out of the 73 percent of people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime due to eyewitness identification errors, 40 percent of cases involved a cross racial bias. Many studies, including those conducted by the American Bar Association, have found that people give less accurate identifications of people who are of a different race than their own.
The Innocence Project also suggests the following significant causes of eyewitness identification errors:
- Lineup administrator bias. Research shows that lineup administrators may inadvertently provide cues to a witness if they are aware of the suspect’s identity in a lineup.
- Simultaneous presentation of suspects has been shown to lead witnesses to make relative judgments rather than confident selections.
- Lineup administrator instructions may be misleading. Some may encourage witnesses to choose one of the suspects in the lineup, regardless as to whether or not the suspect is actually present in the lineup.
- Eyewitness trauma may also lead to the inability to make detailed observations while the crime is taking place.
Many organizations, including the American Bar Association have recommended using double-blind lineup administrations when handling eyewitnesses to a crime. In a double-blind process, the law enforcement official who presides over the lineup does not know the identity of the suspect. According to the ABA, this procedure removes the risk of the officer inadvertently or unintentionally suggesting where the suspect may be in the lineup.
It is also proposed that the identification process be recorded so that the administrator’s instructions and bodily cues can be reviewed if needed.
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