Eyewitness identification in the news

Ryan — March 11, 2009 @ 9:59 AM — Comments (1)

Sam Sommers is a psychologist at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Today on his blog on Psychology Today, he relates an anecdote about eyewitness IDs, told through an encounter with one of his students:

Not long ago, I had a meeting with an undergraduate from a large lecture course. It was the first time I had spoken with her outside of class, and she asked me what type of research I conduct. When I told her, she responded by saying that my work reminded her of a presentation she sat through during freshman orientation–a presentation concerning psychological perspectives on diversity conducted by two faculty members. From that point forward, our conversation took a surprising turn:

Me: “Right, I was one of those presenters.”
Student: “No, there was a Black professor and a White professor, but the White guy was someone else.”
Me: “Actually, that was me. Professor Maddox and I conduct diversity workshops, including that one at freshman orientation.”
Student: “It was Professor Maddox, but the White professor was another guy.”

That’s all well and good, but imagine if a conviction had hung in the balance in this case, and that an eyewitness’ memory was the only evidence against a suspect that the state could muster. Sommers quickly makes the same realization about the consequences of relying on eyewitness testimony.

Indeed, in the legal domain there are few types of evidence that a jury finds more persuasive than the eyewitness who can take the stand and point directly at the defendant while stating, “absolutely, that’s the man I saw.” But I just returned from the annual convention of the American Psychology-Law Society, where research presentation after research presentation demonstrated how surprisingly inaccurate and malleable eyewitness evidence can be. And the consequences for crime suspects as well as victims are far greater than the marginal ego blow suffered by the unrecognized professor who learns that he apparently nothing more than an average-looking, generic White guy.

The Innocence Project claims that in over 75% cases of wrongful conviction, mistaken eyewitness testimony is involved. In several of our cases, it was the only evidence against a suspect.

The issue has found its way back into the mainstream with the release of the book Picking Cotton, written by Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton. Thompson, a rape victim, picked Cotton out of a lineup and testified against him at trial, leading to 11 years of wrongful incarceration. Since Cotton’s exoneration, the two have reconciled and bonded. 60 Minutes also covered the release of the book in a piece recently, including interviews with Thompson and Cotton.

Of interest, KCBD TV station in Lubbock, Texas just performed an experiment of their own in which they staged a purse-snatching and then had students try to pick the perpetrator out of a lineup. Only 8% of them were successful. Again, imagine that only a handful of students – or one witness – had been present, and then the burden rested on him to pick the perpetrator out of a lineup…

The Innocence Project in New York suggests these policy reforms to undercut the problem of unreliable eyewitness identifications:

  • Blind administration: Research and experience have shown that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is.
  • Lineup composition: “Fillers” (the non-suspects included in a lineup) should resemble the eyewitness’ description of the perpetrator. The suspect should not stand out (for example, he should not be the only member of his race in the lineup, or the only one with facial hair). Eyewitnesses should not view multiple lineups with the same suspect.
  • Instructions: The person viewing a lineup should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result. They should also be told not to look to the administrator for guidance.
  • Confidence statements: Immediately following the lineup procedure, the eyewitness should provide a statement, in his own words, articulating his the level of confidence in the identification.
  • Recording: Identification procedures should be videotaped whenever possible – this protects innocent suspects from any misconduct by the lineup administrator, and it helps the prosecution by showing a jury that the procedure was legitimate.

You can read our page on eyewitness identification here.

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