In one of the most serious cases of mistaken identity, a 14-year-old in Washington, D.C., was misidentified and subsequently charged with 41 crimes, including four counts of first-degree murder while armed. In addition to being charged with a slew of crimes that police say he did not commit, personal details about his childhood and previous criminal offenses were widely reported in the press.
An op-ed in the Washington Post said that the child was lucky since eyewitness testimony, even if it’s erroneous testimony, can be very convincing at trial. Eyewitness misidentification has contributed to more than 75 percent of the 253 DNA exonerations nationwide.
The original news of the arrest stated that a D.C. police sergeant who was involved in the chase positively identified the child as the driver of the minivan involved in the mass shooting. An arrest based on this identification probably struck most people as reasonable, even laudable. After all, the sergeant is a trained, experienced police officer, and he was certain enough of his identification to commit it to a charging document. Most people might even assume this should be reliable enough to support a conviction at a future trial.
These documented errors and considerable scientific research show that we should never have been so accepting of the sergeant’s identification in the first place. Eyewitnesses in stressful situations, attempting to identify strangers, are prone to mistakes. A witness’s “certainty” of his identification does not predict his accuracy. And studies show that police officers — even skilled, trained police sergeants — are no more accurate in their identifications than members of the general public.
Police must use best practices to gather eyewitness identification evidence, which isn’t currently the case in D.C. The Eyewitness Identification Procedures Act of 2009 is a pending bill that, if passed, will reform eyewitness identification procedures immediately.