Eyewitness IDs May Be Unreliable in Maryland Criminal Cases

Although studies show that there are limitations to the human memory, eyewitness IDs are still used in court and may send innocent people to prison.

Although it may be common practice for eyewitnesses to select a suspect from a physical or photographic lineup, the results of these procedures are not always accurate. Eyewitness misidentification has been a factor in a number of wrongful convictions in the U.S. According to the Innocence Project, DNA evidence has led to the release of 330 people who were wrongfully convicted of a crime that they did not commit. Approximately 70 percent of those cases involved misidentifications, where a witness chose an innocent person as the perpetrator. Three out of the four cases of wrongful conviction that occurred in Maryland involved misidentifications.

Limitations of the human memory

Research shows that the human memory is not photographic or permanent. In fact, a person’s memory of an event can change over time, as he or she learns about new details surrounding the incident. Different factors, including the amount of time that passed from when the crime occurred until the witness was asked to testify, can have a significant effect on a person’s recollection of what happened. According to the American Bar Association, other factors that can decrease the reliability of an eyewitness identification include:

  • Whether a weapon was used. High levels of stress during a violent crime can decrease a person’s ability to remember the details of an incident.
  • If the perpetrator was wearing a mask.
  • How far away the witness was standing from the perpetrator.
  • The amount of light that was present when the crime took place.
  • The mental state of the witness at the time the incident took place and when they made the identification.

Furthermore, if the perpetrator was a different race that the witness, there may be an even larger discrepancy. According to the Innocence Project, studies have found that people are less likely to remember specific facial characteristics of a person that is of a different race than their own.

The power of eyewitness testimony

Despite these questionable factors, eyewitness identification and testimony continues to be highly regarded in criminal cases across the country. A study published on PBS.org exposed two juries to the same circumstantial evidence surrounding a robbery-murder. The jury in the second case, however, was also given a single eyewitness identification. Surprisingly, 72 percent of the jurors found the defendant guilty in the second case, compared to only 18 percent of the jurors in the case that did not have the eyewitness ID.

The role of a defense attorney

People may have confidence that the judicial system will enable the innocent to walk free following a criminal court case. Sadly, this is not always the case. It is crucial that people facing criminal charges in Maryland have an attorney who may be helpful in upholding their rights in court.

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