From the Lab to the Courthouse

There was no relationship between the level of confidence of the eyewitness and the accuracy of their identifications.

As a psychology graduate student at Emory University in the late 1970s, I was looking for a way to apply what scientists knew about perception and memory in the laboratory to the real world. I designed a series of experiments that varied lineup size and the similarity of the decoys in the lineups to the suspect. After briefly viewing a video of a person cashing a check, subjects tried to identify that person in a lineup one week later. Based on the results of these experiments, I devised guidelines for lineups that maximized correct identifications and minimized false identifications. But I also was surprised by a counter-intuitve finding: there was no relationship between the level of confidence of the subjects and the accuracy of their identifications.

The Emory Law School learned of this work and soon Research Design Associates scientists were teaching the psychology of eyewitness identification and small group dynamics in the law school graduate litigation program. And before long we were testifying in front of juries about the factors that affect the reliability of eyewitness identifications. We now have consulted or testified as expert witnesses in over 100 cases involving eyewitness identification and have conducted over 20 empirical studies to assess the fairness of police lineups.

Georgia's highest courts have relied on the research and testimony of our experts to guide them in decisions regarding the reliability of eyewitness identification. Based on the testimony of one of our experts, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that where eyewitness identification of the defendant is a key element of the State's case and there is no substantial corroboration of that identification by other evidence, trial courts may not exclude expert testimony without carefully weighing whether the evidence would assist the jury in assessing the reliability of eyewitness testimony. And more than 25 years after my initial finding about the unreliability of witness confidence and after dozens of studies by others confirming and expanding that work, the Georgia Supreme Court has now directed trial courts to cease instructing jurors to consider the eyewitness' confidence in evaluating the testimony.


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