Eyewitness Error

Eyewitness error was a contributing factor in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. Research shows that human memory is very malleable. The circumstances of a crime can limit a witness’s ability to remember details of the scene accurately, including the physical characteristics of the perpetrator. Law enforcement procedures for having a witness identify a suspect can influence the witness’s memory about the perpetrator. So although eyewitness identifications can be very persuasive to a judge or jury, they may be unreliable. Certain identification procedures are less likely to influence a witness than others. NCIP supports the use of those evidence-based practices that reduce eyewitness error.

A Sample Case

NCIP exoneree Maurice Caldwell was misidentified by an eyewitness who was influenced by law enforcement during questioning after the crime and spent 20 years in prison, wrongfully convicted.

In 1991 Mr. Caldwell was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder for a shooting that occurred in his neighborhood. A witness of the shooting who lived next door to Mr. Caldwell first told police that no one from her neighborhood had committed the crime. Police later took Mr. Caldwell to the witness’s apartment where she saw him as a potential suspect. She later identified Mr. Caldwell in a photo lineup, saying that he was the shooter she saw under the lamppost. Police had no physical evidence linking Mr. Caldwell to the crime, but did have witness statements confirming his innocence. Mr. Caldwell was convicted based solely on the faulty testimony of his next door neighbor, who could not have seen from her window the features of the shooter under the lamppost.

Evidence-Based Practices

In 2014 the National Academy of Sciences published a report summarizing the research on eyewitness identification and recommending practices that studies show improve accuracy. The report acknowledges efforts by law enforcement to implement evidence-based practices, but also emphasizes that these efforts have not been uniform or adequate.
Evidence-based eyewitness identification practices include:

  • Blind administration—The officer conducting the line-up does not know who the suspects are.
  • Witness instructions—The witness is told that the perpetrator may not be in the line-up at all.
  • Confidence statements—The witness’s level of confidence in the identification is documented.
  • Good fillers—The other people in the line-up have similar characteristics as the suspect.
  • Recording the identification process—A recording of the identification can verify practices used.

Only fourteen states have implemented statewide evidence-based eyewitness identification practices through legislative reforms, court actions or policy directives. California is not one of them, although some individual jurisdictions in the state have implemented these practices, including Alameda, San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara Counties.

Policy Reform

NCIP supports statewide implementation of evidence-based eyewitness identification practices in California. We hold symposia and trainings on eyewitness identification and partner with law enforcement and other criminal justice organizations to educate and inform about the benefits of evidence-based eyewitness identification practices.