The Research Design Associates Blog

(eyewitness identification)

Reforming Eyewitness Identification

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.

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New Reports of Flawed Forensic Evidence

There have been 289 people proven innocent and exonerated by DNA testing in this country and that eyewitness misidentification testimony was a factor in nearly 75% of these exonerations, making it the leading cause of the wrongful convictions. The second greatest contributor to wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing is faulty forensic science. DOJ only made the findings available to prosecutors in the affected cases. And prosecutors failed to notify defendants or their attorneys even in many cases they knew had flawed evidence.

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Landmark Court Decision Mandates Changes in Eyewitness Identification Procedures

In August, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that requires significant changes in the way courts evaluate eyewitness identification evidence at trial and how they instruct juries. The court acknowledged a "troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications" based on an exhaustive review of the scientific research conducted since the 1970s.

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Why Do So Many Eyewitnesses Get It Wrong?

Over 260 people have been exonerated through DNA testing in the U.S. More than 75% of these innocent people had one or more eyewitnesses misidentify them. In about 40% of these misidentified cases, multiple eyewitnesses identified the same innocent person. How can so many eyewitnesses be wrong? Many of these misidentifications could have been prevented and many wrongful convictions averted if police had used more reliable lineup procedures. Detecting problems with a lineup, that is, assessing the fairness of the lineup, can easily be done by the police before a witness views the lineup. But by using the proper precautions and testing lineups for fairness, we can decrease the likelihood of misidentifications.

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From the Lab to the Courthouse

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-intuitive finding: there was no relationship between the level of confidence of the subjects and the accuracy of their identifications.

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