Reforming Eyewitness Identification

National Academy of Sciences Issues Landmark Report

Since my last blog on eyewitness identification 3 years ago, there have been 40 new post-conviction DNA exonerations in the U.S.  That brings the total to 329 people proven innocent by DNA in this country.The Innocence Project reports that the true perpetrators have been identified in 140 (43%) of these DNA exoneration cases.


Eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in nearly 75% of these exoneration cases, making it the leading cause of wrongful convictions.  Eyewitness errors cannot be eliminated but the manner in which eyewitnesses are interviewed, and the composition and conduct of identification procedures can be improved.  Judges and jurors can be made aware of eyewitness fallibility, of the limitations of human perception and memory, and of the factors that may distort these processes.  One approach to enhancing juror sensitivity to the factors that can affect eyewitness performance is to have an expert testify.  As an experimental psychologist with expertise in memory and perception, I have testified in over 40 trials and hearings involving eyewitness identification.  A recent story in the online news journal Vocativ explored some of my work on eyewitness issues.


Psychologists have been studying memory for over 100 years and since the 1970s we have documented specific factors that can affect the reliability of eyewitness identification.  These factors are under the direct control of the criminal justice system. Based on our research, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences published recommendations for reducing false identifications in their 2014 report, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identifications.  Their main recommendations:


1) Train all law enforcement officers in eyewitness identification.  With respect to lineup composition, the lineup “decoys” should resemble the eyewitness’ description of the perpetrator; the suspect should look similar to the decoys; eyewitnesses should not view multiple lineups with the same suspect.

2) Implement “double-blind” lineup procedures: the officer or detective leading the investigation reads standard instructions to the witness. The instructions include an advisory that the officer about to administer the lineup does not know the identity of the suspect.  And the officer conducting the lineup does not know the identity of the suspect.

3) Develop and used standardized easily understood witness instructions. They should include the warning that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup.

4) Document witness confidence judgments: document verbatim the level of confidence at the time the witness first identifies a suspect.

5) Videotape the eyewitness identification process.

6) Judges have the discretion to allow expert testimony on relevant precepts of eyewitness memory and identifications.


So far, 10 states have adopted or are in the process of adopting most of these reforms: Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont, and Wisconsin.  Also some cities: Baltimore, Boston, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, and Tucson.   With the weight of the National Research Council behind these recommendations, hopefully more jurisdictions will adopt these eyewitness identification reform procedures.



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