A few reasons why mistaken identity occurs is because of bad lighting, the view was from a long distance away, or possibly the witness only caught a brief glimpse of the culprit. Other reasons include the fact that our memories are flawed. Our brain can't remember a face as accurately as it does when it's actually viewing it. Our memories are able to be manipulated, we can replace missing information with things we see on TV, read in the news, hear from police officers, or other memories can factor in. Additionally, our brain often distorts sizes and colors. Colors may be remembered as darker or brighter, large sizes are remembered smaller, etc.
Other reasons for mistaken identity fall on the procedures used during photo identifications or lineups. During a photo I.D., the eyewitness may not be told that the suspect's photo is not among the choices. Since they assume the suspect's photo is among the choices and they point out the person who's face is most similar to the one in their memory. In a photo I.D., if the "distractors" and the suspect's photos differ from one another, a person can be more inclined to pick the photo that stands out to them. Contributing factors are lighting, contrast, background, where the face is in relation to the frame, etc.
With lineups, people will often choose the same person they chose in the photo I.D. for the sake of consistency, even when the photo chosen is incorrect. Other times, if the person conducting the lineup knows who the offender is among the choices, they can inadvertently or intentionally signal to the eyewitness whom to choose.
The InnocenceProject.org lists several policies that should be adopted to implement reform in our justice system.
- Blind administration: Research and experience have shown that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is.
- Lineup composition: "Fillers" (the non-suspects included in a lineup) should resemble the eyewitness' description of the perpetrator. The suspect should not stand out (for example, he should not be the only member of his race in the lineup, or the only one with facial hair). Eyewitnesses should not view multiple lineups with the same suspect.
- Instructions: The person viewing a lineup should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result. They should also be told not to look to the administrator for guidance.
- Confidence statements: Immediately following the lineup procedure, the eyewitness should provide a statement, in his own words, articulating his level of confidence in the identification
- Recording: Identification procedures should be videotaped whenever possible - this protects innocent suspects from any misconduct by the lineup administrator, and it helps the prosecution by showing a jury that the procedure was legitimate.
Paul R. Moraski, Esq.
The Law Office of Paul R. Moraski
221 Essex Street, Suite 51
Salem, Massachusetts 01970