Issue in the Legal System

One issue that is present within the legal system is false identifications. False ID’s typically stem from police lineups and photographic lineups. There are many situations where even the most confident eyewitness can mistake the identity of the accused. After all, while observing a crime, an eyewitness often has a very short period of time to observe what’s happening, let alone remember specific details of the offender’s appearance. In fact, where a weapon is involved, eyewitnesses tend to focus more on the weapon than on the person holding it.

Individuals in a lineup who look like the victims attacker are likely to get accused even when that specific person is innocent. This was the case in 1984, when Ronald Cotton was convicted of raping Jennifer Thompson. Jennifer positively identified Ronald from a photo lineup and a live lineup as the man who raped her (Gruman, et al., 2017). He was sentenced to life in prison as a result of Jennifer’s positive ID. After 11 years of serving his sentence, Ronald Cotton was released and found not guilty of raping Jennifer. A man named Bobby Poole rapped Jennifer and that was confirmed by a DNA test. Ronald Cotton was in prison for 11 years for a crime he did not commit because of a false ID that was a result from a police and photo lineup.

Another case where police lineups were to blame for a conviction was the case of Otis Boone. He maintained his innocence from the time he was accused of two robberies in 2011. The two victims picked Otis Boone out of separate police lineups and as a result was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison, even with no psychical evidence. He appealed to “New York’s highest court where the majority of judges ruled that the jury should have been told that witnesses often struggle to identify strangers of a different race because mistaken identifications are a major factor in wrongful convictions. Mr. Boone is black; the victims were white” (Southall, 2019). The court granted him a retrial and made it mandatory that the judges must explain the cross-race effect to jurors whenever a case involves a witness identifying of a suspect of a different race. At the trial his public defender presented evidence that Otis Boone was over a mile away from one of the robberies five minutes before it occurred. He was acquitted and spent 7 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit.

According to the Innocence Project, “About 70 percent of the 364 convictions overturned with DNA evidence in the United States since 1992 involved witnesses who identified the wrong assailant, and nearly half of those mistaken identifications involved a witness and suspect of different races” (Southall, 2019). This is obviously very concerning because it could happen to anyone. The Innocence Project presents a few ways in which the accuracy of eyewitness identification can be improved. One way is to use the double blind method. This method is designed to prevent the administration of the lineup from providing inadvertent or intentional verbal or nonverbal cues to influence the eyewitness to pick the suspect.This is done by the administrator and eyewitnesses not knowing who the suspect is. It is important to use methods such as the double blind method when carrying out lineups because it is preventing innocent people from being convicted.



Eyewitness Identification Reform. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. (2017). Applied social psychology: understanding and addressing social and practical problems. SAGE.

Southall, A. (2019, March 18). A Black Man Spent 7 Years in Prison. Then a Court Changed the Rules on Racial Bias. Retrieved from

1 comment

  1. You point out a good reason for social psychology knowledge to be applied to the criminal justice system—there are many false positive identifications due to errors in procedure that can lead to bias. The case of Ronald Cotton, who served 11 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, is a perfect example. The Innocence Project is credited with his exoneration. I think this calls into question the power of just one eyewitness identification without other sufficiently strong evidence. Your other example of Mr. Boone’s conviction and subsequent retrial that was allowed due to social science evidence presented to the judge of the cross-race effect, shows how social psychology can inform the criminal justice system. However, it takes time for change and progress to happen, despite empirical evidence showing that bias and errors can be reduced by procedural changes to lineups. According to Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement, the guidebook for investigation procedures that is used by law enforcement in over 17,000 agencies in the U.S. and Canada, as of 2013, only 56% of police agencies have altered their policies since the publication of that resource. I think there needs to be more rigorous standards in place for lineups, especially considering the impact that eyewitness identification has on a criminal case. There are numerous ways that errors and bias in eyewitness identification can be reduced, including more awareness and attention to existing bias, such as the cross–race effect, which seems to have played a role in the case of Mr. Boone, who was an African American man mistakenly identified by a White eyewitness. Perhaps, in light of that scientific knowledge, more effective means of identification of the suspect could have been explored.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar