The Negative Impacts Eyewitness Misidentification Has Had on American Society

by Ashanti Benons, age 16
The Negative Impacts Eyewitness Misidentification Has Had on American Society

“In ‘Historian as a Participant’, it is argued that eyewitness history is beneficial to society because the ‘true traits of the principal persons and their relationships’ involved in a historical event are better described by the witnesses involved (Schlesinger 347).”

In “Historian as a Participant”, it is argued that eyewitness history is beneficial to society because the “true traits of the principal persons and their relationships” involved in a historical event are better described by the witnesses involved (Schlesinger 347). In this statement, Schlesinger establishes that one of the main reasons why eyewitness identification evidence has played a vital role in America’s criminal justice system is that the people involved in an event are able to provide a deepened understanding and awareness of situations. Despite the significant role it plays in establishing the factual evidence in a criminal investigation or prosecution (Albright), it should not be relied on because according to Richard Axel, “Our perceptions are not direct recordings of the world around us, rather they are constructed internally according to innate rules” (Axel 234). In that statement, Axel identifies how one of the problems with eyewitness identification evidence is that can be influenced by internal/biological factors. These factors include age, race, and gender which can influence the way a person’s senses encodes information to their brain and therefore their memory’s ability to recall certain events and details (Lorenza 45). In support of this conclusion, studies supported by the National Science Foundation and published in Memory and Condition regarding the correlation between aging and face recognition found that “Compared with the young, seniors had lower accuracy and higher choosing rates” on target present and target-absent lineups, and they also falsely recognized more new faces when asked to perform a recognition test (Searcy, Bartlett, Memon).

Throughout history, the U.S supreme court has acknowledged the potential risk of wrongful convictions occurring due to eyewitness misidentification and established criteria for assessing its accuracy in Neil v. Biggers and Manson v. Brathwaite during the 1970s. State supreme courts have “enacted… mandates that law enforcement personnel conduct identification procedures in ways consistent with scientific discoveries”, as well. However, eyewitness misidentification still remains one of the main factors involved in wrongful convictions (Kahn-Fogel 120). This is supported by statistics collected by the Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that uses DNA testing to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals, that found that mistaken eyewitness identifications have contributed to approximately 70% of the more than 350 wrongful convictions in the U.S. overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence from 1989-2017” (Innocence Project). Even though these victims make up a small portion of the United States population, The significance of this issue lies in the many economic, social and ethical concerns it raises. In many states, wrongful convictions have resulted in economic losses, made it difficult for exonerees to reintegrate back into society after they are released and threatened the safety of society by leaving the true perpetrators of criminal cases unpunished. As preventive measures, all states should implement mandatory reforms regarding the way eyewitness evidence is extracted from witnesses. In addition, A national system for helping exonerees adjust to life outside of prison needs to be developed.

Economic Impacts

Wrongful convictions have wasted money that could have otherwise been allocated for other purposes beneficial to communities. In states such as Texas, Illinois, and California, misidentification has cost state governments millions of dollars. In 2009 an investigation carried out in Texas by the Justice Project, an organization dedicated to improving America’s criminal justice system, documented the involvement of misidentification evidence in 85% of DNA exonerations cases in which thirty-nine innocent people served 500 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit (The Justice Project). Jonathan Silver, a reporter for Texas’ criminal justice system in the Texas Tribune depicts the high cost of the wrongful convictions using data from the state comptroller’s office that found that over the last 25 years, Texas has paid $93.6 million to 101 individuals who were wrongfully incarcerated. To further quantify the expenses associated with just one wrongful conviction, Silver discusses how exonerees are eligible for $80,000 in lump sum payments for each year they spent behind bars. (Silver and Carbonell). In 2011, The Better Government Association and the Center for Wrongful Convictions conducted a seven-month investigation into exonerations that took place in Illinois from 1989-2010 and came to the conclusion that the wrongful conviction of “85 men and women for violent crimes in Illinois has cost taxpayers more than $214 million.” Eyewitness misidentification evidence played a role in 46 out of 85 of these cases. These claims are based on the organization’s review of various resources including 100 Freedom of Information Act requests and interviews with the exonerees, police and prison officials and attorneys. (Better Government Association). Lastly, A cost analysis of failed prosecutions in California’s criminal justice system published in 2015 by the Berkeley School of Law found that taxpayers paid over $220 million for the imprisonment of over 607 individuals in their test sample. Out of the total $220 million spent, $31 million of it is associated with “an eyewitness who were found to be unreliable or lying, eyewitnesses who were mistaken in their identifications, and police identification practices that were improper”. The authors elaborate on the ways in which these convictions have wasted resources that could have been spent on improving society by discussing how if cities and counties in California had $220 million, they could purchase “a year of K-12 instruction for almost 40,000 children, 1,836 additional firefighters, 2,300 additional police officers and 117 million school lunches” (Silbert, et al. 61).

Safety Concerns

When innocent people are wrongfully convicted and put behind bars, investigations into the real perpetrator of a crime are put on hold and these individuals are able to inflict harm on communities by committing further crimes. This is supported by the Better Government Association and Wrongful Convictions Center’s discovery that while the 85 people in their investigation were wrongfully incarcerated, the actual perpetrators were on a collective crime spree that totaled at least 94 felonies, including 14 murders, 11 sexual assaults and 10 kidnappings” (Better Government Association). This claim is further supported by the 153 actual perpetrators that were identified by the Innocence Project and the estimated 80 sexual assaults, 35 murders, and 35 other violent crimes they committed while innocent suspects remained behind bars (Innocence Project). In his article published by the National Academy of Sciences, Thomas Albright argues that these additional crimes that occur due to the wrongful incarceration weaken the public’s trust in the criminal justice system and can result in “social unrest and enmity directed at law enforcement and..courts” (Albright).

Negative Impacts on Exonerees

When exonerees are released from prison they experience mental illness and other emotional difficulties that can impair their ability to reintegrate into society. John Wilson, professor of psychology at Cleveland State University makes the claim that more mental health professionals trained to treat exonerated individuals should be available at public agencies. He justifies this position using an assessment he conducted that found that “post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsions, phobias, and paranoia” are common among individuals who have been recently released from prison (Wilson). Some common symptoms of these disorders include fears of re-arrest, sleep disturbances, problems trusting others that can interfere with the relationship an exoneree has with their family, and problems securing employment. A clinical study conducted by Psychiatry Professor Adrian T. Grounds on a group of eighteen wrongfully convicted men released from long-term imprisonment in Europe documented a pattern of psychological problems such as Enduring Personality Change, Psychological/Physical Suffering, and Re-adjustment Issues. Enduring personality change was documented in 14 cases and is associated with “an enduring and disabling personality change with characteristics such as hostile or mistrustful attitude toward the world, social withdrawal, and feelings of emptiness” (Grounds). This study helps to further validate John Wilson’s findings and stresses how the impact of prison on an exoneree is so profound that it can lead to drastic changes in their personality, and consequently the way they treat their family, friends, and other members of the community. Joan Petersilia, a Professor of Criminology at the University of California, Irvine, elaborates on how wrongfully imprisoned individuals experience the adverse symptoms described by Wilson and Grounds as a result of different aspects associated with prison life such as separation from loved ones, crowded and confined living conditions, intravenous drug use, and poverty (Petersilia).

Some other contributing factors to mental illness among exonerees are unemployment and trouble with record expungement. According to Leslie Scott in her American University Criminal Law Brief, Exonerees have difficulty finding work since they have no legal right to get their former jobs back and when applying for new ones, they must still answer “yes” when asked if they have an arrest or conviction record, even if the conviction has been thrown out. Another obstacle that many exonerees face is non-automatic record expungement. This makes it possible for an employer to do a background check and decide not to interview an exoneree because of their remaining arrest record (Scott).

Many exonerees also experience difficulty affording medical, social, and educational services due to unequal compensation as well as restrictions placed on statutes offered in different states. According to Jeffrey Gutman, a professor of clinical law at George Washington University Law School, as of 2017, only 32 states including the District of Columbia have established compensation statutes. Scott Rodd, a reporter for the Pew Charitable Trust elaborates on the disparities that exist between different states by discussing how in states such as Kansas, without compensation laws, exonerees typically have to file expensive and time-consuming lawsuits in order to try to convince legislatures to pay them. Despite all of their efforts, winning compensation from a legislature isn’t always guaranteed. Although Texas offers $80,000 per year of incarceration, Wisconsin only offers $5,000 per year with a maximum of $25,000. These caps on monetary statutes, “ignore the nature, severity, and variation of injuries suffered” by exonerees (Gutman). Leslie Scott helps to stress the need for reform within this system by discussing how in the employment arena, parolees often fare better than exonerees because they have access to services such as free job placement, temporary housing, and counseling that exonerees do not (Scott).


Social science research has proven that eyewitnesses can easily be mistaken as a result of external factors such as, “specific line-up techniques, interviews and police procedures” (Anderson 12). Therefore in order to reduce the risk of eyewitness error, specific procedures and guidelines, such as double-blind lineup administration and standardized witness instructions, should be used by law enforcement personnel in all states. According to the Journal of Criminology, double-blind administration requires that the lineup administrator not be aware of what position a suspect is in making it impossible for them to purposely or unintentionally steer witnesses toward a suspect that they would not have pointed out otherwise. These procedures are recommended by several different organizations such as the American Bar Association, the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the American Psychology-Law Society (Rodriguez and Berry 6). One concern of this procedure are the expenses associated with it as a result of the need for extra manpower(Joyce and Stark). However, the ability of these procedures to be recorded on audio files and administered using laptops without any police officers present helps to alleviate these concerns. The computerization of lineup techniques is also beneficial considering how technology-focused society has become (Wells, et al.).

The development of standardized witness instructions is another way to reduce eyewitness error. The National Academy of Sciences has advised that administrators should “use witness instructions in all photo arrays and lineups and read instructions aloud in a manner similar to how the Miranda Rights are read” (National Research Council 107). In addition, according to Policy Insights from Behavioral and Brain Sciences, during a lineup procedure, it has been recommended that administrators give witnesses unbiased instructions such as notifying them that the person who committed the crime may not be present and that they are not required to make an identification. Compared to biased instructions that may give the witness the impression that the person who committed the crime is present and that it’s the witness’ task to pick him, unbiased instructions have been demonstrated to reduce false identification rates. However, one implication is that their usage has been shown to reduce correct identification rates (Clark).

Lastly, a national compensation plan should be put in place to ensure that all states offer equal access to monetary assistance and other services. Currently, the Innocence Project has proposed one that would allow the exonerees record to be expunged if they file within three years. They also recommend a minimum of $62,500 per year of imprisonment that would reflect consideration of lost wages and medical fees. It also provides a lifetime of physical and mental health care. However, hardships may arise when trying to get states to change their current system or set up systems in states that offer nothing(Innocence Project). More organizations similar to the Life After Exoneration Program should also be developed. This organization is centered in Northern California and helps to establish exoneree-mentoring relationships as well as other beneficial services such as phone counseling, support, and referrals for therapeutic counseling services (Life After Exoneration Program).

Works Cited

Anderson, Tiffany M., “Juror misperceptions of eyewitness evidence: impact on expert testimony and credibility”. Honors Program Theses. 192, UNI ScholarWorks, 2015. Google Scholar.

BGA and the Center on Wrongful Convictions. “A Landmark BGA Investigation: ‘The High Costs of Wrongful Convictions”. Better Government Association, 2011,

Clark, Steven, et al., “Eyewitness Identification and the Accuracy of the Criminal Justice System”. Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Vol 2, Issue 1, pp. 175 186, Oct.2015,

Dario N. Rodriguez and Melissa A. Berry. “Eyewitness Science and the Call for Double-Blind Lineup Administration”. Journal of Criminology, vol. 2013, Article ID 530523, 2013, doi:10.1155/2013/530523.

Grounds, Adrian T. “Understanding the Effects of Wrongful Imprisonment”, Crime and Justice, Volume 32, 2005: 1-58,

Innocence Project. “Eyewitness Identification Reform.” Innocence Project., 2017,

Jeffrey S. Gutman. “An Empirical Reexamination of State Statutory Compensation for the Wrongly Convicted”, Missouri Law Review, Vol.82, Issue 2, 2017,

The Justice Project. “Convicting the Innocent:Texas Justice Derailed”, Jennifer Willyard, Michelle Strikowsky, 2009,

Kahn-Fogel, Nicholas. “The Promises and Pitfalls of State Eyewitness Identification Reforms”. Bowen Law Repository: Scholarship & Archives, Volume 104, Issue 1, Ky. L.J. 99, 2015, Google Scholar, scholarship/172.

Lacy, Joyce W., and Craig E. L. Stark. “The Neuroscience of Memory: Implications for the Courtroom.” Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Vol.14:pp. 649–658, 2013, doi: 10.1038/nrn3563.

Life After Exoneration Program. Rebuilding the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted.

Lorenza, Sheena M. “Factors Affecting the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identification”.The Review: A Journal of Undergraduate Student Research, Vol. 6: pages 45-50, 2003,

National Research Council. Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2014,

Petersilia, Joan. “When Prisoners Return to Communities: Political, Economic, and Social Consequences”. NIJ Research in Brief, National Institute of Justice, No.9,

Richard, Axel. “Nobel Lecture: Scents and Sensibility: A Molecular Logic of Olfactory Perception”,, Nobel Media AB, 2014,

Rodd, Scott. “What Do States Owe People Who Are Wrongfully Convicted?”, The Pew Charitable Trusts, 2017,

Schlesinger, Arthur. “The Historian as Participant”. Daedalus,Vol. 100, No. 2, pp. 339-358, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1971,

Scott, Leslie. “It Never, Ever Ends”: The Psychological Impact of Wrongful Conviction”. American University Criminal Law Brief 5, no. 2, 2010:10-22,

Searcy, J.H., Bartlett, J.C. & Memon, A. “Age differences in accuracy and choosing in eyewitness identification and face recognition”. Memory & Cognition, Volume 27, Issue 3, pp 538-552, 1999,

Silbert,et al., “Criminal Injustice: A Cost Analysis of Wrongful Convictions, Errors, and Failed Prosecutions in California’s Criminal Justice System”, Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, University of California, Berkeley School of Law, 2015,

Silver, Johnathan and Carbonell, Lindsay. “Wrongful Convictions Have Cost Texans More Than $93 Million”. The Texas Tribune, 2016,

Thomas, Albright. “Why eyewitnesses fail”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 114, no. 30 7758-7764, 2017, doi:10.1073/pnas.1706891114.

Wells, Gary.,et al. “A Test of Simultaneous vs. Sequential Lineup Methods”.Center for Forensic Science & Public Policy, American Judicature Society, 2011,

Wilson, John. A Perpetual Battle of the Mind, WGBH Educational Foundation, 2002, http://

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