While every American citizen is promised a fair trial under the U.S. Constitution, there are some people who become victims of a flawed judicial system. Since 1989, 325 people have been released from prison after DNA evidence proved their innocence, according to the Innocence Project. Approximately 12 of those people were from Florida and countless more innocent prisoners remain behind bars, hoping that they will one day be exonerated as well. The staggering number of wrongfully convicted people in the U.S. leaves many citizens wondering how they were put behind bars in the first place. Although improper forensic science testing, false confessions and informants played a role in sending many innocent people to jail, eyewitness misidentification was the number one cause of wrongful criminal conviction.
Eyewitness misidentification led to the wrongful imprisonment of a Florida man, who was erroneously named as a serial rapist, according to the Innocence Project. Although the man did not fit the victims’ initial descriptions of the perpetrator, he was still chosen out of a photo lineup, arrested and charged with the crime. The victim had also said that her assailant spoke English with a Latin accent; however, the man charged with the crime did not speak English. The innocent man was sentenced to life and spent 25 years in prison before DNA evidence proved that he was not guilty of the crimes. Approximately 13 years after he was sentenced, two witnesses recanted their stories and identifications of the man.
Problems with eyewitness testimony
Eyewitness identification and testimony can be very influential in a criminal trial. Yet, studies show that the eyewitness identification process and the human memory itself are ultimately unreliable. There are too many factors that can affect the accuracy of an identification or statement made by a person who witnessed a crime. According to the American Bar Association, some of these factors include:
- The procedure that was used to collect the eyewitness testimony or to identify the subject. Some lineup administrators may unintentionally lead the witness into choosing a suspect or the lineup may be improperly organized leading to a wrong identification.
- People who are exposed to an extremely stressful situation, such as a crime involving a weapon, are less likely to remember specific details about the event, including physical characteristics of the perpetrator.
- People are less likely to make an accurate identification of a person whose race is different than their own.
- Environmental elements during the crime, such as the presence of light, distance and whether the perpetrator was wearing a mask during an assault can influence a person’s ability to make a reliable identification.
The amount of time that has passed since the crime occurred can also affect the accuracy of eyewitness identification. Not only are people prone to forget key details as time passes, but the human memory is highly susceptible to suggestion, and a person may inadvertently change their story to fit with new evidence found in the case.
Find a criminal defense attorney
If you have been charged with a crime, it is crucial that you partner with an established criminal defense attorney in Florida. Your life, reputation and future are on the line. An attorney can ensure that all of your rights are upheld in a court of law, and help you explore all of your legal options.