Trials for those accused of a crime in Virginia and across the United States often rely on the testimony of witnesses. Witnesses are often asked to identify individuals who they believe committed a crime. Unfortunately, witness identification can be unreliable. In 2016, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ordered a task force to look into witness reliability.
The report found that 70% of people who had been exonerated after being convicted of a felony due to DNA evidence were convicted based on mistaken identity. Because eyewitness testimonies have such a high rate of error, experts say that the use of them may prevent those accused of a crime from having a fair trial.
Eyewitness testimony is often incorrect because of several psychological reasons. When facing a lineup, witnesses want to be helpful to police. Police may confirm that the individual is in the lineup, which makes witnesses feel better about attempting a guess. Police often reassure witnesses during the identification process, prodding them to feel secure in their guesses. These tactics may make it difficult for a witness to tell police that they are unsure. Additionally, previously seeing someone or seeing someone with the same features might make witnesses mistakenly alter the image of the criminal in their mind. Police sketches are also an area that is heavily relied on in identification. These sketches are often incorrect.
People who allegedly commit a misdemeanor or felony are entitled to a fair trial by their peers. If they are incorrectly identified by a witness due to police tactics, this might mean that a fair trial isn’t possible. A lawyer may be able to help by cross-examining a witness to determine if the person accused of the crime is who they actually saw. If the witness admits that they may be incorrect in their identification, the person on trial might be acquitted of the alleged crime and released.