Mistaken eyewitness identification

Though eyewitness testimony is one of the most common pieces of evidence presented in the court room, volumes of research from the last three decades shows that it is also one of the most unreliable. The studies show that the human mind neither remembers nor recalls events as we actually saw them. It is for this reason that eyewitness misidentification is the leading evidentiary cause of wrongful convictions, both nationwide and in Louisiana.

Law enforcement behavior can further compound fallible memories: police action during identification procedures, often inadvertently, can distort the recollection of eyewitnesses to crimes. 

For example, Henry James was wrongly convicted for nearly 30 years of aggravated rape based on the mistaken eyewitness identification of the rape victim. Despite knowing Mr. James (who had spent the previous day with her husband), immediately after her attack the victim told police that she did not know her assailant and did not identify him as her attacker. After police showed her a photo of Mr. James the next day she identified him as her rapist. DNA evidence cleared Mr. James on October 21, 2011.

More than 48% of Louisiana and Mississippi’s exonerations have involved some sort of error by eyewitnesses. For example, the eyewitness in Shareef Cousin’s case was not wearing her glasses at the time of the attack and, had initially admitted to police that she could not identify the assailant.  By the time of trial, she testified to the jury that she was “absolutely positive” that she had seen Mr. Cousin commit the murder.

Louisiana and Mississippi exonerees impacted by at least one mistaken eyewitness:

Photo credit:

 
Angola Prision