Eyewitness misidentification was the leading cause in 70 percent of the 349 wrongful convictions that were overturned based on post-conviction DNA evidence.
The National Registry of Exonerations has identified at least 450 non-DNA-based exonerations involving eyewitness misidentification.
EYEWITNESS IDENTIFICATION & MEMORY
Human memory is malleable and fragile. We cannot rewind a video camera to review a memory, so our brains tend to reconstruct incidents. As a result, we unintentionally and unknowingly fill in those details that we can’t remember to recreate a fuller picture.
This means that information we learn after witnessing an event — from other witnesses, police, the media — can profoundly alter our memories. Even the way questions are asked may affect what we remember. Our memory can be contaminated while we store that information, and each attempt to recall it can lead to further alteration.
This is through no fault of our own. In fact, it is rare for an eyewitness to intentionally choose the wrong person. When eyewitnesses are mistaken, they are not lying – they genuinely believe that they have identified the right person. Oftentimes they have been led to that belief by poor or biased investigations.
Despite the wealth of research confirming the unreliability of human memory, traditional eyewitness identifications remain among the most commonly used and compelling evidence brought against criminal defendants.