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Law Offices of

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Pennsylvania Criminal Defense

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  4.  » Eyewitness identification and the human memory

Eyewitness identification and testimony is often used as evidence in a criminal trial. What the jury may not take into account, however, are the flaws and inaccuracies that often occur in the eyewitness process.

Unreliable procedures used in the eyewitness identification process and limitations of human memory are a few issues involved with this type of evidence. When jurors are not fully aware of these things, it could lead to the wrongful conviction of an innocent person.

Flaws in the eyewitness identification process

According to the Innocence Project, more than 375 people were released from prison after DNA evidence found them to be innocent. Approximately 69% of these cases involved eyewitness misidentification, where an eyewitness chose the wrong person from a physical or photo lineup.

Flaws that lead to these errors include leading by the lineup administrator, where the person directing the procedures inadvertently prompts the witness to choose someone from the lineup. Also, a misorganized lineup that includes only one person who matches the suspects identity, can make it difficult for the witness to make a choice.

Flaws in human memory

Human memory has limitations when it comes to remembering specific details about a person and/or a situation, which can mean the difference between an innocent or guilty conviction. Memories can be influenced by the following:

  • If a weapon was involved
  • If the perpetrator is a different race than the witness
  • The amount of time from when the crime occurred to when the witness chooses a suspect
  • The amount of light present at the crime scene, as well as weather conditions
  • How far was the witness from the actual crime
  • If the perpetrator was wearing any type of disguise, such as a face covering

In some cases, people may fill in gaps of memory with thought-up details or events that did not actually occur.