The San Antonio Express-News recently ran an interview with Gary L. Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University and also the director of social science for the American Judicature Society’s Institute of Forensic Science and Public Policy. Wells has been studying witness identification since 1975. He has conducted extensive research on lineup procedures and the accuracy of witness identification, and is often consulted by law enforcement for assistance in witness memory, investigation procedures and evidence evaluation.
DNA testing came along in the late 80’s. Until then, most criminal cases relied heavily on witness testimony. Since 1989, there have been 179 DNA-exonerated cases nationally, and Wells said that mistaken identity was a factor in more than 75 percent of those cases.
Lighting conditions, distance and other distractions can affect a witness’ memory. Another problem with witness memory, said Wells, is that the mind goes back in “fills-in” without the person realizing they are doing it. He calls it manufactured recall. “Somebody says something about a mustache and then when you go back to try to remember, you’re putting a mustache on it,” he said.
Line-ups can also be a problem because most witnesses go in and again, without realizing it, tend to make a relative judgment, choosing someone in the lineup that looks the most like the person in the witnesses’ memory. And the assumption for most witnesses is that the perpetrator is in the line-up.
Wells has worked with many police departments, training them in best practices for dealing with witnesses to avoid mistaken identity convictions. Agencies in Ohio, North Carolina, New Jersey, Connecticut and Washington, D.C. have implemented his suggestions in their departments. “There’s actually been a lot of improvement, a lot of change. But there’s still a long way to go,” Wells said. “It’s a success story, but it’s far from complete.”
If you have been falsely accused of a crime, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend you. As Dr. Wells pointed out in this article, there have been many convictions based on mistaken identity so you need to ensure you have the best representation in the criminal court system.