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Eyewitness misidentification can lead to legal trouble

In order for prosecutors to obtain a conviction, they must prove that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of committing the alleged criminal offense. There are many tactics a prosecutor can utilize in an attempt to acquire a conviction. They might rely on physical evidence, such as a video recording, a weapon allegedly used in the crime or DNA test results. Though these are powerful elements, there is another that is frequently used and relied upon for convictions: eyewitness accounts.

An eyewitness can place an accused individual at the scene of a crime, make it appear that the accused actually committed the criminal act in question, or destroy a criminal defendant's alibi. Yet, there are problems with eyewitness identification, and those accused of a crime should know how to address them in order to protect their legal rights and, perhaps, their very freedom.

Despite the common usage of eyewitnesses, their accounts of events are not always accurate. In fact, in 70 percent of convictions that are later overturned by DNA testing, eyewitness misidentification played a significant role in the initial conviction. There are many reasons for witness misidentification. Police officers may place a mark next to the photograph of the suspect when showing a photo lineup to a witness, witnesses may become more detailed in their description of who they saw after being told about a suspect or the suspect may be shown to the witness in a poorly lit area.

Law enforcement should take the appropriate steps to ensure that eyewitness identification is accurate. However, even if blind lineups are used and proper instructions are given to the witness prior to identification, there can still be an error. This is why it is crucial for a criminal defendant to know how to address this matter at trial, something with which a criminal defense attorney may be able to help.

Source: Innocence Project, "Eyewitness Misidentification," accessed on April 5, 2016

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