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

Mistaken identity is a defense in criminal law which claims the actual innocence of the criminal defendant, and attempts to undermine evidence of guilt by asserting that any eyewitness 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), 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, the defendant must convince the jury 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, 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 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.

Abraham Lincoln 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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