David J. Celuch
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Why does eyewitness misidentification occur?

When you face charges for a crime you did not commit, you trust that the criminal justice system will uncover the truth and restore your freedom. However, due to a number of factors, wrongful convictions can occur.

According to the Innocence Project, mistaken identification or eyewitness identification is the leading contributor to wrongful convictions across Oregon and the rest of the country. In fact, this contributed to 71% of more than 360 wrongful convictions. Many have long debated the accuracy of the identification process, arguing that it places too much of an emphasis on human memory.

The problems with traditional eyewitness identification

The traditional eyewitness identification process, still practiced in many states, includes a standard lineup of potential suspects. The witness must then identify the suspect. This may seem straightforward. However, research shows that the lineup administrator often already knows who the suspect is and provides subtle cues to the witness.

Another issue is that the eyewitness presumes that the lineup includes the true suspect. Rather than second-guessing this, the witness often places too much trust in this assumption and ends up selecting someone despite their uncertainty.

Lastly, this process relies heavily on the memory of the witness. There are several issues with this, including that many throughout the process can influence the witness, resulting in memory contamination. Stress, anxiety and the trauma of potentially reliving the incident can also affect their memory and their actions.

Options to improve the eyewitness identification process

In 2013, Oregon took steps to improve the reliability of this process. If using such evidence, prosecutors must prove that the identification was based on the knowledge and firsthand perceptions of the witness, rather than on other parties. The witness must also testify to this.

The Innocence Project states that law enforcement agencies across Oregon also exercise best practices to improve the accuracy of the process. These include utilizing a double-blind lineup, providing instructions to the witness, collecting a witness confidence statement and more.

Despite these advancements in Oregon, errors in the identification process can still occur and have occurred in prior convictions. Additionally, just 24 states have taken measures similar to Oregon’s to correct common issues with the process. If you or a loved one has been wrongfully convicted, consult with an attorney to determine your options to pursue post-conviction relief.

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