The good news is that there are some simple procedures police and prosecutors can follow to vastly improve the integrity of eyewitness testimony.
The bad news is that because these procedures result in fewer identifications, police and prosecutors have been reluctant to implement them.
These limitations can produce mistaken identifications with significant consequences.
Writing about the study in USA Today, Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck points out that 73 percent of the wrongful convictions so far overturned by DNA testing included false identification by eyewitnesses.
We’ve known for decades that eyewitness accounts of events are unreliable and that they generally become more unreliable over time.
We’ve also long known that eyewitnesses are vulnerable to suggestion, particularly from authority figures.The witness should be asked to describe in his or her own words how confident he or she is in the identification at the time the identification is made.This is critical for helping jurors evaluate the reliability of the identification when the case goes to trial.Groups like Scheck leads have been making these recommendations for years now. Previous NAS studies on forensic specialties like bullet lead composition have made a pretty big splash.The studies helped overturn a number of wrongful convictions and led to procedural changes in police agencies and crime labs across the country, including at the FBI.And the courts haven’t been all that interested in ensuring that they do.(Two exceptions are the state supreme courts in Oregon and New Jersey.) Most recently, the U. Supreme Court declined to rule that eyewitness identifications made under suggestive circumstances were a violation of a defendant’s due process rights. This week, a team of researchers at the National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive report on eyewitness evidence.Witnesses’ confidence is often falsely inflated by confirming feedback by the time they testify at trial.Indeed, researchers recommend that the lineup be electronically recorded so there is a permanent record of what occurred.More from Scheck: The NAS report has endorsed several specific, science-based recommendations for law enforcement that are already in place in some jurisdictions about the way identification procedures should be conducted.Since witnesses often pick up inadvertent clues from the officer conducting a live or photo lineup, these procedures must be performed “blind” by an officer who is unaware of the identity of the suspect or who does not know the position of the suspect in the lineup.