Many wrongful convictions were based on eyewitness testimony, pointing out the flaws of this type of evidence.
Recently in Denver, law enforcement was looking for a black male with dreadlocks or braids. According to Fox31 Denver, the description was provided by witnesses after another man was shot while in a group of people. The man later died and it is unknown whether police have gathered any other evidence or information as to why the shooting occurred. The suspect was said to be in a car that contained two other men.
A common cause of wrongful convictions
The Innocence Project states that in over 70 percent of convictions that have been overturned by DNA testing, eyewitnesses were the major source of evidence used to prove guilt.
Eyewitness testimony is often considered irrefutable evidence by juries and judges alike. However, recent studies on the subject show that what people think they saw is not always what really occurred. For instance, The Washington Post points out that there are many factors that can impact people’s memory and identification skills. This can lead to errors in describing alleged suspects in crimes and even wrongful convictions. Law enforcement policies concerning witnesses and the identification process are another contributing problem.
Factors that affect memory recall
Science shows that the human brain is a complex system which determines personality, thought, reason and beliefs about the world. Therefore, it should not be surprising that memory is more than a visual image. Memories often contain feelings, smells, sounds and even touch. People who have been victims of a traumatic event may suppress certain parts of the event or experience confusion over the timeline surrounding the event.
Likewise, people who witness a crime or are the victim of a crime, are often influenced in their memory by the following factors:
• Stress level
• The presence of a weapon
• Lighting in the environment
• Heightened emotions
• Previous biases and beliefs
The amount of time from the event to the retrieval of the mental images of the event can also make a difference in what a person can remember. It is not uncommon for people to subconsciously pull from other memories to fill in the gaps. For instance, a victim may substitute the void of an attacker’s face with someone they’ve seen who is similar in coloring or size.
According to the American Bar Association, eyewitnesses can also be influenced by the criminal justice system. A law enforcement agency may hold a lineup, organized by the same officers who are working on the case. During the process, the officers could inadvertently send cues to the witness of who the prime suspect is.
Another way that law enforcement agencies may add to the problem is through using photo groups that are too big or that presents the suspect’s picture in a different format from the others, such as black and white amid colored photos or larger in size than the others. This can also influence witnesses, who may feel that they have to pick one of the photos. In truth, the witness may not really feel that any of the people look familiar.
A criminal charge comes with severe penalties upon conviction that can include decades in prison. People in Denver should meet with a criminal defense attorney to understand what their legal rights are.