Imagine this scenario: you are walking in the grocery store and a man comes up to you, obviously very excited to see you. They tap you on the shoulder and lean in to give you a big hug. But then they stop, look at you and murmur the words, “I am sorry, I mistook you for someone else.” This momentary encounter may not have a large effect on your day as you move on from it. In fact, you may experience a brief sense of confusion and vulnerability, then say something comforting like, “That’s okay.” At the end of it, you get to move on.
Let’s take the same scenario and change some facts. Let’s say you were in a convenience store the night before, and just after you left the store got robbed. As the police review the tape and speak to eyewitnesses, they identify you as an accomplice. You are now in the same grocery store, and not knowing that the convenience store you were in last night got robbed, you get tapped on the shoulder, but this time you are greeted by police who handcuff you, tell you are under arrest, and read you your rights. Flash forward a few weeks and you are being prosecuted and sentenced for armed robbery, facing years in prison for a crime you know you did not commit.
Both of these cases are instances of misidentification. Both are the result of someone thinking you are someone else or were involved in something that you were not. Yet, with both situations you end up with the wrong end of the stick. In the first case, life goes on. In the second case, your life is no longer your life. Misidentification can happen to anyone for a variety of reasons. On the small scale, it is a minor embarrassment. But when it happens in a legal case, it is infuriating. In general, misidentification happens more often than society may wish to admit.
In fact, according to the Innocence project, which works to free wrongly convicted inmates, “Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide. ” Truth is perception, and in the case of misidentification, the truth of who committed a crime is the perception of the eyewitness. This looms a larger question: how can someone misidentify another person?
There are several reasons for how misidentification can occur. They are listed below, and originate from the Innocence Project.
• A witness made an identification in a “show-up” procedure (in which witnesses are shown only the suspect at the scene of the crime or in another incriminating context) from the back of a police car hundreds of feet away while in a poorly lit parking lot in the middle of the night.
• A witness in a rape case was shown a photo array in which only the photo of the person that the police suspected was marked with an “R”, while the rest were unmarked.
• Witnesses substantially changed their description of a perpetrator (including key information such as height, weight and presence of facial hair) after they learned more about a particular suspect.
• Witnesses only made identification after viewing multiple photo arrays or lineups – and then made hesitant identifications (saying they “thought” the person “might be” the perpetrator, for example) – but at trial the jury was told the witnesses did not waver in identifying the suspect.
It is easy to decipher how a misidentification can happen. Witnesses may be asked to point out the perpetrator under unusual circumstances, which is not always the most reliable method. According to Phys.org, “The work by psychologists at the University of St Andrews shows that the human memory can be remarkably fragile and even inventive when it comes to remembering past events, often completely rewriting ‘autobiographical belief.” Clearly, human memory cannot and should not be the sole and reliable judge for identifying criminals because it can rewrite events that have occurred, which is especially true of victims or witnesses in traumatic situations.
When someone experiences a traumatic event, they can acquire what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. The Mayo Clinic defines PTSD as a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event – either from experiencing the event or witnessing it. One study done on the memory of people experiencing PTSD found that memory recall of the event that caused the PTSD “included the inability to recall important aspects of the trauma.” The study was conducted by The National Institute of Mental Health. This study suggests that memory is not reliable after someone has been a victim of or a witness to a crime, which can be traumatic and disturbing in nature. Moreover, a person who suffers from PTSD has to give testimony in court can be forced to relive the events of the crime. This can provoke nightmares and incite tremendous anxiety and fear. In order to avoid these symptoms, the person may use an avoidance technique of not recalling accurate details of the event, so as not to have to live through the event again. In the end, this can lead to misidentification.
No matter how you look at it, misidentification happens. It is a natural side effect of the process of identifying a witness and of how a victim or witness of a crime recalls the events. Several factors can play a role in misidentification and there is plenty of room for error, from someone’s personal bias to how a police lineup is set up. With the knowledge that misidentification happens, it is important to be aware that something can be done about it. Outside of trying to overturn wrongful convictions due to misidentification, which can take years, the Innocence Project works with law enforcement to make changes in regards to how a criminal is identified. To learn more, read about misidentified people, and watch compelling videos about real people in real misidentification cases, visit their site.
The next time you are mistaken for someone else in public, be grateful that you can just go on with your life. Certainly, being mistaken for a crime you did not commit due to misidentification is not the type of mistaken identity experience you ever want to have.