If you ask me to describe the cashier who rang me up at the grocery store this past weekend, I will not be able to tell you. Maybe I can tell you she had brown hair and give an approximation as to her body type, but I would never be able to pick her out of a group of pedestrians walking down the street. I do not have her face engrained into my memory. I could not recognize her in a Facebook photograph. I do not have a good enough recollection about her appearance.
If you ask me to pick out that nice man who changed my flat tire for me or rescued my dog from a cliff, then you also will be out of luck most likely. I interacted with the gentleman for a short period of time. I conversed with the gentleman. But, select him out of a crowd? No can do.
After I have had one face-to-face meeting with a client, put him in a courtroom with a sea of other bodies facing criminal charges, and I will likely not be able to recognize him. Instead, I will have to call out his name and see who positively responds. Contrarily, once I have met the individual three or more times in person, I am able to walk right up to him or her without having to confirm the name.
In college, I participated in a daylong leadership development program. During that course, I met another student at my school for the first time. We sat by each other the entire day and engaged in meaningful conversation. At the conclusion of the event, we decided to meet for lunch the following week.
The day of the scheduled lunch, we confirmed via email the location we would meet. After class, I walked over to the allotted venue and waited…and waited…and waited for her to show. This was before the era of smartphones. I did not have the ability to ping her on Facebook messenger or send her an iMessage. The food hall was hopping. People were coming and going in droves. Other students stood by the entrance to meet up with their lunch dates, but none of them was my new friend.
Eventually, the hallway cleared out after the majority of the students had purchased their sandwich or salad and claimed a table to park at for the remainder of the lunch period. There was just one girl and I left waiting for our lunch mates. I kept looking at her because she was the only other person there. Is that her? No way. That is not her. After more time passed, I finally asked her if she was Lucy.
Awkwardly, we both laughed when we realized our mistake. We both had been standing there for a good twenty minutes and did not recognize each other. Unlike the day at training, on this day her hair was in a ponytail. The dirty blonde hair I had remembered looked much darker when gathered back on the top of her head. She looked as if she had just come straight from the gym. She looked nothing like the person I remembered from that day together and the person I had envisioned in my mind.
As for my appearance, I cannot say what threw her off. I do not remember what I was wearing. What I do know, though, is that she did not recognize me either. I was out of place. I looked different.
What is terrifying is the extreme frequency with which district attorneys and police officers rely on eyewitness identification alone in convicting the accused of a crime. Most frequently, law enforcement employs two methods. Method One: an infield show up. An officer working the case transports the witness to the location of an arrest. When the witness arrives, a police officer pulls a handcuffed individual out of a police cruiser and asks, is this him? The person may have similar facial features to the suspect. The person may have the same color shirt on as the suspect. However, the person may or may not be the same person who actually committed the crime. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the time, the witness will say, “Yes that is him” or “He looks similar to who I saw; I think it’s him.” In fact, I have yet to see an infield show up where the witness has not identified the subject.
Method Two: the infamous six-pack photo lineup. The investigating officer on a criminal case creates an assortment of five-people who fit the description of the suspect and then the sixth picture is of the person whom the police have already arrested for the law violation. In many counties, the officer working the case then inquires if the witness sees the suspect in the photographic lineup. It is all too easy for the officer to influence the witness’s identification given that the authority figure knows precisely who is in jail for the offense.
Moreover, if the individual happens to say something like, “This man has similar facial features to the suspect,” the law enforcement officer will eagerly make the witness place his or her initials by the photograph. The initials provide confirmation that the photographed individual is the actual perpetrator, not that the individual has a similar haircut and skin tone as the suspect. A response by the witness of, “I do not know if this is him, but this person looks similar,” turns into a report by the police officer that the witness positively identified the suspect in the photographic lineup. If the police did not audio record the identification process, the accused is out of luck. Most likely, a jury is going to believe that the defendant is the perpetrator.
There are numerous examples of cases where faulty eyewitness testimony has led to convictions. Jerome Johnson spent thirty years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Only one witness implicated Mr. Johnson in the murder. Mr. Johnson, now exonerated, is one of the few lucky ones—that is, if anyone can consider spending thirty unnecessary years of your life incarcerated in a state prison. The majority of people convicted due to faulty eyewitness identification will remain behind bars.
Given the concrete data regarding the egregious problems with basing a conviction solely on eyewitness identification, it is time for the laws change. If the district attorney’s office does not have anything more than eyewitness identification testimony to connect someone to the crime, the prosecutor should not go forward with the charges. If the prosecutor is unsure about an individual’s guilt or has any doubts himself as to whom the actual perpetrator is, the district attorney should not prosecute the defendant.
Our current laws make false convictions all too easy. The statement of one witness can send a human being to prison for life. How would you feel if that falsely accused person was you? By sitting back and watching these false convictions happen to members of our society, we are effectively condoning these improper convictions. Change takes a village. Change takes dedication of the masses. Change takes action. Stop passively allowing injustice, and instead, fight for change.