In sexual assault cases, accurately identifying the perpetrator can come with difficulties due to the complicated nature of human memory and the processes used for eyewitness identification

Memory and Eyewitness Identification

The reliability of an eyewitness’ memory can be compromised by stress, trauma, and other influences. Studies suggest that while there may be confidence in a recollection, sometimes the accuracy of memories is not 100% factual. In other words, the victim of a sexual assault may be a credible witness (i.e., believable), but not reliable (i.e., inaccurate). The act of trying to recognize a potential perpetrator from a lineup for example, relies heavily on the retrieval of stored memories, which can be a complex process and vulnerable to many errors.

  • Factors affecting memory recall:
    • Stress level at the time of the incident.
    • Length of time since the incident occurred.
    • Subtle cues and suggestions during recall attempts.

Challenges in Identification Procedures for Sexual Assault

When one may be asked to identify the accused through legal proceedings, there are a variety of factors that can influence the outcome. The manner in which identification procedures are conducted can minimize the risk of mistaken identity. Lineups must be created carefully and follow established protocols, ensuring that all individuals resemble the initial description provided to avoid any misidentification.

Additionally, procedures must adhere to evidence based recommendations. This involves “blind administration”, where the officer conducting the lineup doesn’t know the suspect, and recording the confidence statement from you at the time of the identification, which provides important information on the reliability of the identification.

Correcting Errors in Witness Identification

Experts in eyewitness identification are often involved in the legal process to educate judges and juries about the factors that can affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. This is reinforced by policing practice that includes adopting stricter lineup procedures and the use of video recorded identifications to ensure transparency and accountability.

  • Best Practices for Lineups: Implement double blind lineup procedures where the officer conducting the lineup does not know the suspect.
  • Video Recording: Mandatory video recording of the identification process to capture the initial response of the witness.

Impact of Mistaken Identity on Legal Outcomes

In sexual assault cases, mistaken identity can significantly affect the outcome of the case, leading to wrongful convictions and challenging appeals. 

Wrongful Convictions and Appeals

If an individual is falsely accused due to mistaken identity, the court may wrongfully convict, resulting in a miscarriage of justice. In Canada, wrongful convictions are not just a hypothetical risk; it has happened in many documented cases in the past and will continue to happen in the future, leading to devastating consequences. The National Registry of Exonerations has proven and documented cases where individuals were wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit. It is no consolation for a wrongfully convicted accused to be found innocent after spending 20 years in jail. 

Upon recognition of a possible wrongful conviction, you have the right to appeal. Post-conviction appeals based on new evidence, such as DNA evidence, or witnesses who recant their sworn evidence from your trial, or fresh evidence that points to innocence, all play an important role. However, navigating the appeal process can be complicated and requires a deep understanding of legal precedents and procedural requirements.

Frequently Asked Questions

A ‘mistake of fact‘ can serve as a defence in sexual assault allegations if you genuinely and reasonably believed that the complainant had given consent.

To argue a ‘mistaken belief in consent,’ your lawyer must demonstrate that you possessed a sincere belief that the complainant consented at the time of the incident. This also involves an objective evaluation by a judge or jury to examine the circumstances surrounding your belief, focusing on the reasonableness of your subjective belief. In other words, your lawyer will try to convince a judge or jury that your honest but mistaken belief in consent was justifiable in the given circumstances of your case. 

If you successfully lead an ‘honest but mistaken belief’ in communicated consent defence at your trial, it may result in an acquittal. The court will need to consider whether you took reasonable steps to ascertain consent and whether your mistaken belief was honestly held and was reasonable.

The honest but mistaken belief in consent defence has limitations. You cannot claim this defence if it was based on self-induced intoxication, recklessness, willful blindness, or if no reasonable steps were taken to ascertain consent. It is also not applicable when the law prescribes a need for expressed consent or when dealing with individuals below the age of consent or with cognitive disabilities.