Monday, June 18, 2007

Eyewitness Misidentification (Part I)

The ability of an eyewitness to take the stand and identify the accused as the perpetrator of a crime often provides the essential component of the prosecutor's burden of proof in a criminal case. However, an ever growing number of DNA exonerations have proved eyewitnesses indeed make incorrect identifications, even when procedural safeguards were followed. Even the Supreme Court of the United States recognized the dangers of eyewitness testimony when it stated: "The influence of improper suggestion upon the identifying witnesses probably account for more miscarriages of justice than any other single factor - perhaps it is responsible for more such errors than all other factors combined." U.S. v. Wade, 388 U.S. 218 @ 229.

The Court stated in later opinions the testifying witness must recount events with a total stranger under circumstances of emergency or emotional stress. The witness' recollection of the stranger can be distorted easily by the circumstances or by later actions of the police. Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98, 111-12.

From the Innocence Blog:
Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction, and Iowa State Professor Gary Wells has studied the issue for three decades. In an article published this week on the website of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, Wells writes guidelines for local reporters and activists to question whether their local law enforcement agency has enacted important identification reforms based on solid scientific research.

Click here to read the article. (Nieman Watchdog, Harvard University, 6/12/07)
It is critical for the Bryan/College Station criminal defense lawyer to understand the dynamics involved in eyewitness identification cases. In future posts we'll explore the nature of eyewitness testimony, its weaknesses, and how an experienced lawyer can use improper police procedures and expert testimony to discredit the testimony of an eyewitness.

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