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What is Eyewitness Identification?

Keith Koons
Keith Koons

Eyewitness identification is a term that refers to a person being able to recognize a suspect who is believed to be involved with a crime. The witness will be asked to make a positive identification from several suspects who appear similar in looks, and this often takes place inside a police station. Afterwards, the witness may be required to testify inside a court of law if the suspect goes to trial. Since the time period between the initial eyewitness identification and the trial can sometimes be several months or years, a part of the procedure usually involves reviewing the case with the prosecuting attorney.

When a crime is committed, police normally try to interview each and every potential witness as quickly as possible. The reason for the urgency is because the crime is still fresh in each person's mind, and at that time they are much more likely to remember important details. If a witness believes that she saw a suspect during the act of the crime, the authorities will obtain a description of the person and attempt to locate him. This process sometimes includes viewing photographs of previously convicted criminals as well.

An eyewitness might be brought to a trial against someone accused of a crime.
An eyewitness might be brought to a trial against someone accused of a crime.

If a suspect is located, the witness is normally brought to the police station and asked to confirm the suspect's identity. This process may occur in a process referred to as a line up, and several others bearing a resemblance to the suspect will also be brought into the room. By law, the police are not allowed to make any suggestions or help during any part of the eyewitness identification. When a suspect's attorney feels that these rules are not followed, an objection could be filed with a judge. In cases where improper procedures occurred during the eyewitness identification, the charges could be dismissed completely.

If the suspect goes to trial, a representative from the prosecutor's legal team will contact the witness. During this period, the witness's original statement will be reviewed to help refresh her memory, and a photograph of the identified suspect may be provided as long as it was from the time of the incident. Often, the suspect will completely change his appearance before the trial in order to confuse the witness. The judge instructs the witness to identify the subject only if she is 100% sure of the person's identity, which is often difficult to do after extended periods of time.

Occasionally there are also eyewitness identification cases involving wrongful conviction. This is where the witness mistakenly identified a suspect who actually had nothing to do with the crime, and the evidence was strong enough to make a conviction. If the arrest is later overturned, the suspect has legal rights that allow him to seek monetary damages against both the police department and the witness.

Discussion Comments


Good, but incomplete. To be useful in a criminal matter, eyewitness identification must be a demonstrated ability on the part of the eyewitness to pick out the person they have previously seen in (and here is the crucial part) a fair, reliable and valid test of that ability.

Valid identification procedures are absolutely necessary because the overall error rate of the eyewitness identification of strangers is so high, and this evidence is unique in that it exists only in the mind of the eyewitness.

Due to the way human memory works it cannot be independently tested and retested if it was not tested in a valid manner the first time.

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    • An eyewitness might be brought to a trial against someone accused of a crime.
      By: Junial Enterprises
      An eyewitness might be brought to a trial against someone accused of a crime.