Dr. Robert Shomer, an eyewitness expert and the subject of CBS’s “48 Hours: Presumed Guilty,” stated in a CBS program that over 75% of false convictions are due to a mistaken identification by an eyewitness.
Through extensive research on the factors that influence an eyewitness identification Shomer has concluded that there is a low level of accuracy when it comes to positive identifications. Shomer says that the level of confidence an eyewitness possesses is only weakly correlated to the accuracy of an id. There are several examples of cases that have gone to trial with no substantial evidence aside from an eyewitness. Groups like The Innocence Project work to overturn false identifications through the use of DNA testing.
Shomer says that there are several common misconceptions about a positive eyewitness identification. First, that the procedure used by the police is unimportant because the image of a perpetrator is burned into the mind of an eyewitness. There are several ways in which the police can unintentionally “coach” a witness to choose a particular suspect. Police officers rarely receive the proper training needed to perform valid identification procedures, and often times police department policies differ from station to station.
Additionally, many people believe that if an eyewitness is certain of their identification that it must be accurate because they would have no reason to make a false id.
These claims have been refuted by scientific evidence. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder, people do not record memories exactly as they happen nor do they recall memories precisely. Much like physical evidence, eyewitness testimony must be preserved and retrieved methodically. Witnesses can change their description of a perpetrator after they have learned information about a particular suspect.
Shomer believes that the general public needs to educate themselves on police procedures and eyewitness identification. False identifications happen every day and sound legal counsel can aid in the proper carriage of justice.