One of the most important types of evidence to come into play in a criminal case is eyewitness identification of a suspect. However, human memory is more fallible than most people realize, and an eyewitness may forget crucial details of an event soon after it occurs. Mistaken identity can and does happen on a regular basis, when individuals face accusations of criminal acts due to their resemblance to the actual perpetrators. Mistaken identity is a commonly cited defense in many criminal trials, and everyone should know how such defenses work.
How Does Mistaken Identity Happen?
Mistaken identity issues are less common today thanks to the accessibility of DNA testing, which authorities can use to positively identify criminal offenders in many cases. However, eyewitness testimony unfortunately leads to implicating against innocent people due to their physical resemblance to the actual offenders.
For example, a woman suffers a sexual assault in her home from an intruder, and does not get a detailed look at the perpetrator. She reports the incident to the police and provides them with a general description of the offender, but the intensity of the situation causes her memory to fail when it comes to a few key details. Upon seeing the sketch from the police artist, the victim may automatically associate the produced sketch with her memory of the incident, effectively “filling in the blanks” of what she cannot recall.
Later, in a police lineup of suspects she identifies the lineup person who most closely resembles the attacker depicted in the sketch, but the identified person did not commit the crime. This is just one example of how mistaken identity can easily happen, especially if there is a distinct lack of physical evidence in a case.
Pennsylvania Laws Protecting Against Mistaken Identity
Since the advent of more accessible DNA testing in the 1990s, the justice system has seen a vast number of exonerations and record expungements of criminal offenders wrongfully convicted due to mistaken identity.
Pennsylvania legislators recently introduced a new bill that would help address the state’s notoriously complex system for handling wrongful convictions, expungements, and exonerations for those convicted due to mistaken identity. The new bill would require immediate expungement of the criminal record of a person wrongfully convicted by mistaken identity.
The standard of proof for criminal cases also comes into play when it comes to mistaken identity. The burden of proof rests on the accuser. Given the abundance of available information in digital spaces, from closed-circuit security cameras, and the easy access to digital recording with smartphones, mistaken identity issues are less common and more easily addressed in recent years. Additionally, DNA testing is much faster and even more reliable now, so an individual accused of a crime can submit to a DNA test in some cases to prove his or her innocence.
Overcoming a Criminal Charge From Mistaken Identity
The best thing for any person accused of a crime to do is to seek legal counsel as soon as possible. An attorney can review the evidence and determine whether the prosecution has met the burden of proof for an alleged criminal act. The defendant’s attorney may demand additional testing or request to see the physical evidence to defend his or her client.
Establishing a verifiable alibi can also help prove innocence in a mistaken identity situation. For example, even if an eyewitness identifies you as a criminal in a lineup based on a sketch, this will not overrule an airtight alibi. Human memory is not always reliable, especially for those who suffer from violent crimes or other intense situations.
If you have been wrongfully identified as the perpetrator of a crime, hiring an attorney is typically the best option for resolving the situation. Your criminal defense attorney can review the evidence against you and determine whether it meets the standard of proof. DNA testing and other investigative techniques can also help you avoid an unjust conviction, and many states now have protections in place to assist those who have been wrongfully convicted due to mistaken identity.