News 04.13.11

New Slate Series on Eyewitness Misidentification

Brandon Garrett analyzes the

fundamental issues surrounding eyewitness misidentification

in a new series for Slate. After carefully studying the first 250 cases of wrongful convictions, Garrett—a law professor at the University of Virginia School of Law—notes that “eyewitness misidentifications were the single greatest cause of flawed evidence.”

Garrett highlights the case of

Ronald Cotton

to pinpoint some of the key factors that cause faulty identifications. North Carolina college student Jennifer Thompson misidentified Ronald Cotton as her rapist, leading to Cotton spending 10 years in prison before DNA finally exonerated him in 1995.

Although the Thompson identified Cotton as the perpetrator on two separate occasions, he was also the only suspect to appear in both the photo array and the live lineup. Thompson was also reassured by law enforcement officials after her first identification that she “did great,” inevitably contributing to her second identification at the lineup. After selecting Thompson again,   the officers again reinforced her misidentification by telling her it was “the same person [she] picked from the photos.”

Garret argues that best practices grounded in psychological research can reduce misidentifications.

Eyewitnesses should always be told the attacker might not be present in the lineup. Their initial confidence level should be documented (because, like in Ronald Cotton’s case, by the time of trial it may change). The most crucial proposed reform is double-blind administration. The officer administering a photo or live lineup should not be aware who the suspect is, and the witness should be told the officer does not know.

Garrett warns that failure to reform the system can only help history repeat itself: “The same systemic failures will cause countless wrongful convictions in the future unless we make our criminal justice system more accurate.”

In a joint cooperation with the Innocence Project, Garrett also unveiled the first section of a

new interactive feature on the causes of wrongful conviction

on the Innocence Project website that includes additional information on eyewitness misidentification reform and the Cotton case.

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