Misidentification can be defined as making a falsely or inaccurate identification. Witness can be defined as one who can give a firsthand account of something seen, heard, or experienced. (American Heritage Dictionary) When you put these two words together, you get witness misidentification which has been referred to as the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, with nearly 75% of the convictions overturned through DNA testing. There have been 260 exonerations across the country based on forensic DNA testing with 3 out of 4 involving cases of eyewitness misidentification. (Innocence Project 1999)
In 1907 or 1908, Hugo Munsterberg published “On the Witness Stand”; he questioned the reliability of eyewitness identification. As recent as 30 or 40 years ago, the Supreme Court acknowledged that eyewitness identification is problematic and can lead to wrongful convictions. The Supreme Court instructed lower courts to determine the validity of eyewitness testimony based on irrelevant factors, like the certainty of the witness, the certainty you express in court during the trial has nothing to do with how certain you feel two days after the event when you pick a photograph out of a set or pick the suspect out of a lineup. It has been said that you become more certain over time. (The Confidential Resource September 15, 2010)
An eyewitness viewing a simultaneous lineup tends to make a judgment about which individual in the lineup looks most like the perpetrator relative to the other members of the lineup. This is particularly problematic when a lineup only contains innocent people. Research has shown that the effective use of fillers when composing a lineup can help combat the tendency for the relative judgment process to lead to the identification of an innocent suspect. First, ensuring that the suspect in the lineup does not stand out, or that the fillers resemble the witness’s prior description of the culprit at least as much as the suspect does, guards against the eyewitness choosing an innocent suspect simply because the suspect is the only lineup member that resembles the perpetrator.
There are many factors that can cause misidentification like lighting, stress, trauma, presence of a weapon, distance and race; these are known as estimator variables. The effect of stress on eyewitness recall is one of the most widely misunderstood of the factors commonly at play in a crime witness scenario. Studies have consistently shown that the presence of stress has a dramatically negative impact on the accuracy of eyewitness memory. The presence of a weapon has also been shown to diminish the accuracy of eyewitness recall, often referred to as the weapon-focus effect. Eyewitnesses recall the identity of a perpetrator less accurately when a weapon was present during the incident, the presence of a weapon draws a witness's visual focus away from other things, such as the perpetrator's face. Other factors have been observed to affect the reliability of eyewitness identification, the elderly and young children tend to recall faces less accurately, as compared to young adults. Race can be a challenging factor, being African American, you’re labeled as being black, but there is more to it than that, within the race, you have lighter skinned and darker skinned people, and for someone of another race trying to identify an African American, it can pose a problem. The race factor is one of the most-studied topics in this area it is called the cross-racial identification. A recent meta-analysis of 25 years of research shows a definitive, statistically significant "cross-race impairment," where members of any one race have a clear deficiency for accurately identifying members of another race. The effect appears to be true regardless of the races in question. Various hypotheses have been tested to explain this