Lawrence Wrightsman, a Kansas University psychology professor who submitted a report in Joe Jones’ 1986 trial, points to many misconceptions when it comes to eyewitness identifications in criminal cases.
• Victims have a difficult time identifying attackers of different races. For instance, in Jones’ case, the three eyewitnesses who identified Jones as the attacker were white, while Jones is black.
“For white victims they don’t distinguish between blacks to the degree they distinguish between whites,” he said. “When they see a black in a situation like this, they in a sense cut off their investigation.”
• Victims become more certain of an identification, even if it’s the wrong person. In Jones’ case, the victim, despite the DNA evidence exonerating Jones, still believes Jones was the rapist. Wrightsman said it can be very difficult for victims to back away from an identification, which gets further enforced when they see the person in court multiple times. “Once you have seen him, if not replacing the image of the attacker, gets confused with it,” he said.
• Victims in highly traumatic situations, such as a rape, actually lose some ability to accurately identify a person because that victim’s body is in a survival mode. “There’s an assumption that when there’s an emergency or something serious, your memory freezes this image in time. When in actuality, there are so many distracting things taking place.”
Of the more than 270 cases of DNA exoneration across the country since 1989, more than 70 percent included an eyewitness misidentification, according to the Innocence Project.