Mistaken identity
This article concerns the criminal defense; for other uses, see Mistaken Identity (disambiguation)

Mistaken identity is a defense in criminal law
Criminal law
Criminal law, is the body of law that relates to crime. It might be defined as the body of rules that defines conduct that is not allowed because it is held to threaten, harm or endanger the safety and welfare of people, and that sets out the punishment to be imposed on people who do not obey...

 which claims the actual innocence
Actual innocence
Actual innocence is a state of affairs in which a defendant in a criminal case is innocent of the charges against them because they did not in fact commit the crime of which they have been accused....

 of the criminal defendant, and attempts to undermine evidence of guilt by asserting that any eyewitness
Eyewitness identification
Eyewitness identification, in criminal law, is evidence received from a witness "who has actually seen an event and can so testify in court"....

 to the crime incorrectly thought that they saw the defendant, when in fact the person seen by the witness was someone else. The defendant may question both the memory of the witness (suggesting, for example, that the identification is the result of a false memory
False memory
False memory syndrome describes a condition in which a person's identity and relationships are affected by memories which are factually incorrect but are strongly believed. Peter J...

), and the perception of the witness (suggesting, for example, that the witness had poor eyesight, or that the crime occurred in a poorly lit place).

Because the prosecution in a criminal case must prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt
Reasonable doubt
Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard of evidence required to validate a criminal conviction in most adversarial legal systems . Generally the prosecution bears the burden of proof and is required to prove their version of events to this standard...

, the defendant must convince the jury
A jury is a sworn body of people convened to render an impartial verdict officially submitted to them by a court, or to set a penalty or judgment. Modern juries tend to be found in courts to ascertain the guilt, or lack thereof, in a crime. In Anglophone jurisdictions, the verdict may be guilty,...

 that there is reasonable doubt about whether the witness actually saw what the witness claims to have seen, or recalls having seen. Although scientific studies have shown that mistaken identity is a common phenomenon, jurors give very strong credence to eyewitness testimony
Eyewitness testimony
Research in eyewitness testimony is mostly considered a subfield within legal psychology, however it is a field with very broad implications. Human reports are normally based on visual perception, which is generally held to be very reliable...

, particularly where the eyewitness is resolute in believing that their identification of the defendant was correct.


Researchers like Elizabeth Loftus have challenged eyewitness testimony based on the fact that people's memory can be distorted. In her study she questioned eyewitnesses about a videotape of a car accident. Witnesses were asked "How fast were the cars going when they hit each other?" However, some witnesses were asked the same question with the verb "hit" replaced by the verb "smashed". Those who were asked the question with "smashed" as the verb said the cars were moving faster than those who were asked the same question with the verb "hit." Additionally, when asked if there was broken glass at the scene, those who heard "smashed" were more likely to say there was than those who heard "hit." There was no broken glass in the videotape. Hers is only one example of studies that show memory can be susceptible to distortions.

Case studies

With genetic fingerprinting
Genetic fingerprinting
DNA profiling is a technique employed by forensic scientists to assist in the identification of individuals by their respective DNA profiles. DNA profiles are encrypted sets of numbers that reflect a person's DNA makeup, which can also be used as the person's identifier...

 and DNA evidence now commonplace, many convictions based on eyewitness testimony are being re-examined. According to statistics, over 75% of the cases of DNA exonerations have involved mistaken eyewitness identification
Eyewitness identification
Eyewitness identification, in criminal law, is evidence received from a witness "who has actually seen an event and can so testify in court"....


Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, serving from March 1861 until his assassination in April 1865. He successfully led his country through a great constitutional, military and moral crisis – the American Civil War – preserving the Union, while ending slavery, and...

 used mistaken identity to defend William "Duff" Armstrong in 1858. He used a farmer's almanac to prove that a witness could not have seen Armstrong in the moonlight, as the position of the moon that night would not have provided sufficient illumination. Armstrong was acquitted.

Adolph Beck

A famous case of mistaken identity in the United Kingdom is the case of Adolph Beck, who served several years in prison as a swindler, was released upon completion of his sentence, and then arrested again on the same charges before the actual swindler of similar appearance was apprehended.

Ronald Cotton

Another case demonstrating mistaken identity is the case of Ronald Cotton. In 1984 Jennifer Thompson was raped. During the attack she studied the attacker's face, determined to identify him if she survived the attack. When presented with a photo lineup, she identified Cotton as her attacker. Twice she testified against him, even after seeing Bobby Poole, the man who boasted to fellow inmates that he had committed the crimes Cotton was convicted of. After Cotton's serving 10.5 years of his sentence, DNA testing conclusively proved that Poole was indeed the rapist. Thompson has since become a critic of the reliability of eyewitness testimony. She was remorseful after learning that Ronald was an innocent who was sent to prison. Upon release, Cotton was awarded $110,000 compensation from the State of North Carolina. Cotton and Thompson have reconciled to become close friends, and tour in support of eyewitness testimony reform.
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