75% of wrongful convictions overturned with DNA testing involve eyewitness misidentification; 17 states in last two years have considered reforms
(New York, NY; July 16, 2009) —A report released today by the Innocence Project shows that while eyewitness identification is among the most prevalent and persuasive evidence used in courtrooms, it is not error-proof and is the leading cause of wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA testing.
The report comes as 17 states have considered legislation in the last two years to improve lineups. So far, nine states have taken action to prevent eyewitness misidentification, and the Innocence Project said it will focus on implementing reforms over the next year in 10 states, including New York, Texas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Ohio, Michigan and Rhode Island.
Titled “Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification,” the report lays out the overview of eyewitness misidentification and problems with traditional eyewitness identification procedures. It explains how to minimize the possibility of misidentification and outlines criminal justice reforms that are proven to reduce inaccurate eyewitness identifications.
“There is a growing understanding nationwide that eyewitness identification is often unreliable, and that simple reforms can reduce misidentifications,” said Stephen Saloom, Policy Director at the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “This reports shows the extent of the problem, explains why eyewitnesses sometimes identify the wrong person, and outlines how police practices can be improved to result in more reliable evidence. The consequences of not improving lineups are stark: Investigations get derailed early in the process, and true perpetrators of crime remain free to commit additional violent crimes while innocent people are incarcerated.”
A series of reforms that are proven to reduce misidentifications have been developed by leading social scientists, endorsed by criminal justice organizations and successfully implemented in the field. The reforms include: double-blind presentation (photos or lineup members are presented by an administrator who does not know who the suspect is); lineup composition (the non-suspects included in a lineup resemble the eyewitness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not stand out); witness instructions (the person viewing a lineup is told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup but the investigation will continue regardless); confidence statements (at the time of identification, the eyewitness provides a statement in her own words indicating a level of confidence in the identification); recording of identification procedures (the identification is videotaped entirely); and sequential presentation (lineup members are presented one-by-one instead of side-by-side; because research is ongoing on this reform, the Innocence Project recommends it as an optional addition to the reforms above).
“Several states, cities and towns have already adopted the reforms and found them to be cost-effective and easily implemented,” the report found. “The benefits are extensive and include reinforcing the integrity of reliable identifications as well as reducing the rate of misidentifications.”
States that have taken steps to improve eyewitness identification through legislation include: New Jersey and North Carolina, which mandate blind-sequential policies; Georgia, which has statewide training; West Virginia, which mandates the use of certain reforms proven to increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications; Vermont, which established a task force to explore and recommend enhanced eyewitness identification protocols; Maryland and Wisconsin, which require all jurisdictions statewide to enact written policies regarding the use of eyewitness identification procedures; Connecticut, which directed its Advisory Commission on Wrongful Convictions to monitor and evaluate implementation of double-blind administration of lineup procedures; and Virginia, where the Crime Commission studied misidentification cases and recommended improvements to eyewitness identification procedures including training and sequential presentation.
Disappointingly, there are no consistent standards for identification procedures from state to state or even from one police department to the next. Many police departments don’t even have a written policy, which often leads to inconsistency within a single station.
“We know from social science research and real-world experience that these reforms work. We’re looking forward to working with police and policymakers in several key states over the next year to help them understand the need to improve lineups and the benefits of these reforms,” Saloom said. “Victims are denied justice, innocent defendants are sent to prison and the public’s safety is at risk when real perpetrators go undetected.”
The findings in “Reevaluating Lineups: Why Witnesses Make Mistakes and How to Reduce the Chance of a Misidentification,” released today, include:
• 240 people, serving an average of 12 years in prison, have been exonerated through DNA testing in the United States, and 75% of those wrongful convictions (179 individual cases as of this report) involved eyewitness misidentification.
• In 38% of the misidentification cases, multiple eyewitnesses misidentified the same innocent person.
• Over 250 witnesses misidentified innocent suspects.
• 53% percent of the misidentification cases (among those where race is known) involved cross-racial misidentifications.
• In 50% of the misidentifications cases, eyewitness testimony was the central evidence used against the defendant (without other corroborating evidence like confessions, forensic science or informant testimony).
• In 36% of the misidentification cases, the real perpetrator was identified through DNA evidence.
• In at least 48% of the misidentification cases where a real perpetrator was later identified though DNA testing, that perpetrator went on to commit (and was convicted of) additional violent crimes (rape, murder, attempted murder, etc.) after an innocent person was serving time in prison for his previous crime.
Download the full report here