Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions, playing a role in about 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide.
On July 19, 1982, Marvin Anderson was at work when he was asked by his supervisor to come speak to police. The officers questioned Marvin about a rape that had occurred over the previous weekend. Marvin told the police what he knew about the crime – details he had heard because he lived in the neighborhood where it had occurred. The police asked Marvin to come down to the station to answer more questions and he agreed. Since he was innocent, he had no reason not to.
What Marvin didn’t know was that the man who had committed the rape had told the victim that he “had a white girl,” and because Marvin was the only black man that the investigating officer knew who lived with a white woman, he had automatically become a suspect. Even before questioning Marvin, the officer had gone to his employer and obtained a color employment identification photo of him. The victim was shown the color photo of Marvin along with a half dozen black and white mug shots and was asked to pick her assailant. She chose the color photo of Marvin. Less than an hour later, the police assembled a lineup where Marvin was the only person included whose picture was also included in the original photo array shown to the victim. She identified him in the lineup as well.
Despite having an alibi, Marvin was convicted of rape, abduction, sodomy and robbery, largely on the basis of this eyewitness misidentification, and was sentenced to 210 years. He served 15 years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence and won his freedom.
While eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury, years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable.
In case after case, DNA has proven that eyewitness identification is frequently inaccurate. In the wrongful convictions where eyewitness misidentification played a role, the circumstances varied substantially. For example, the Innocence Project has worked on cases in which:
In 1907, Hugo Munsterberg published On the Witness Stand, in which he questioned the reliability of eyewitness identification. When Yale Law professor Edwin Borchard studied 65 wrongful convictions for his pioneering 1932 book, Convicting the Innocent, he found that eyewitness misidentification was the leading contributing factor of wrongful convictions.
Research illustrates that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound. In eyewitness identifications, witness memory is impacted by a variety of factors that occur from the time of the crime onwards, and their memories can be easily contaminated.
Hundreds of scientific studies (particularly in the last three decades) have affirmed that eyewitness identification is often inaccurate and that it can be made more accurate by implementing specific identification reforms.
Several easy-to-adopt procedures have been shown to significantly decrease the number of misidentifications. In order to prevent additional additional wrongful convictions due to misidentification, the Innocence Project is collaborating with law enforcement and policymakers to adopt the following policies:
Ten states have have implemented these reforms through laws, court action and policy directives, while jurisdictions including Baltimore, Boston, Dallas, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Tucson have made eyewitness identification reform procedures part of their standard practice.