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Eyewitness Identifications May Be Inaccurate During Sexual Assault Cases

Victims and witnesses of serious crimes, including sexual attacks, may unintentionally choose an innocent person as their attacker.

Victims of sexual assault may be asked to identify their attacker in a photo or physical lineup. However, many studies show that these types of identifications can be highly inaccurate and may even send an innocent person to prison. According to the Innocence Project, 325 people have been released from their prison sentences after DNA evidence proved that they were actually innocent of the crimes they were convicted of. Approximately 235 of those cases involved victims of eyewitness misidentification.

Factors leading to eyewitness misidentification

According to the American Bar Association, there are several factors that may cause a victim or witness to choose the wrong person as the perpetrator of a crime. Evidence has shown that when people experience highly stressful situations, such as a sexual attack, they are less likely to recall certain details of the event. This is especially true when violence or weapons are involved in the incident. After the tragic situation, people may unconsciously transfer the face of someone they have seen in another place and time, to the scene of the crime.

Other details that should be taken into account when looking at eyewitness testimony is how long the person was exposed to the perpetrator and whether the perpetrator was wearing a disguise during the altercation. The amount of time that has elapsed from when the crime occurred and when the victim or witness identified the suspect can also alter the accuracy.

Flaws in the lineup process can result in a misidentification as well. For example, the victim of a sexual assault distinctly remembered that her attacker had facial hair and was wearing a hat. When shown a lineup, she chose the only man present in the lineup who was wearing a hat and had facial hair. Due to poor lineup organization, this man may have been wrongfully accused of a crime.

The racial factor

The Innocence Project reported that in approximately 53 percent of cases where a person was erroneously identified as the perpetrator of a crime, cross-racial misidentification was involved. This happens when the victim or eyewitness identifies a person that is of a different race than their own. Studies show that people are generally unable to distinguish distinct facial and physical characteristics of people that are different races.

Partnering with an attorney

If you have been convicted of a serious crime in Rhode Island, you may not know where to turn. A criminal defense attorney may be able to answer your questions and help you understand your legal options.

Keywords: wrongful, conviction, eyewitness, identification