In Focus: Eyewitness Identification Reforms
Eyewitness misidentification is by far the
of wrongful convictions. Nationwide, 75% of wrongful convictions that were overturned by DNA testing involved erroneous identifications from victims or witnesses.
Decades of solid scientific research, combined with a growing body of real-world experience, show that eyewitness identification is often fallible and that simple reforms are proven to increase the accuracy of identifications. In all areas – courtroom litigation, scientific study and state or local policy deliberations – there is increasing momentum nationwide to implement eyewitness identification reforms based on the science and practical experience.
Key Reforms Advance in State Legislatures
In several states over the last few weeks, bills have been introduced that would improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications and help police apprehend the true perpetrators of crimes.
Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill on February 22 that would implement several critical reforms in how identification procedures are administered. The legislation now goes to the Senate Finance Committee for debate.
• In New Mexico, both houses of the State Legislature passed legislation in February that would help make identifications more accurate. The bill now goes to Governor Bill Richardson.
Read the text of the bill here
, a bill is pending in the House that would implement guidelines for identification procedures. The eyewitness reforms are among several legislative remedies being considered in Vermont, where the state Senate recently passed a bill granting post-conviction access to DNA testing and providing compensation to wrongfully convicted people.
• In California, Georgia and Texas, legislation has been introduced recently that would increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications.
Focus on Scientific Basis for Reform Increases
More than 30 years of scientific research supports eyewitness identification reform, and recent developments are shifting attention toward gathering even more scientific research and ensuring that identification procedures are rooted in proven science.
• On March 1-3, 2007, scientists, criminal justice practitioners and policymakers will gather for a national conference on how science can better inform criminal justice procedures (and how practical experience can better inform science). The conference is inspired by the work of psychologist Hugo Munsterberg, who suggested 100 years ago that psychology held the answers to some of criminal justice’s most difficult problems. Today, DNA exonerations have proven many of Munsterberg’s theories.
Click here to learn more about the conference
• A civil lawsuit filed in early February aims to set the record straight about a recent field research on eyewitness identification reforms. The MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law filed the lawsuit, which would force the Illinois police departments that conducted a controversial 2006 identification study to reveal their underlying data. The Illinois study claimed that eyewitnesses make more false identifications in “blind sequential” procedures (where witnesses view lineup members – or their photos — one at a time and the administrator doesn’t know which person is the suspect) than in traditional “simultaneous” lineups (where lineup members are all in one room or all on page of photos). The study, which has been widely discredited because its methodology was so flawed that the results are unreliable, contradicts significant scientific findings on the issues in recent years. The authors of the report and the police departments involve have refused to make the data behind the study public, raising even more serious doubts about the methodology and the objectivity of the study. The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers joined in the lawsuit. The groups filing the suit allege that the data collection methods used in the Illinois study were severely flawed and that the data should be shared with the public.
Read more here
Fellowship and National Network Address Eyewitness Issues
Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP recently announced that it is underwriting a newly created fellowship at the Innocence Project dedicated to eyewitness identification issues and that it is also committing pro bono work by firm lawyers to work on eyewitness cases and reforms. The fellowship involves reaching out to law enforcement, defense attorneys and others involved in the criminal justice system to boost awareness about procedures that can increase the accuracy of eyewitness identification. The Fellow charged with coordinating the initiative at the Innocence Project is Ezekiel Edwards, who was a staff attorney for the Bronx Defenders, the highly regarded organization of public defenders that is a model for community and client advocacy.
The fellowship will provide critical assistance to attorneys litigating individual cases, expertise for precedent-setting amicus briefs and resources that can inform policy decisions on eyewitness identification. In addition, the Innocence Project is working with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association to set up a nationwide network that will compile and disseminate information about innocence and criminal justice reform.
Exonerations Continue Revealing Eyewitness Errors
Among the 150 people who were convicted based in part on eyewitness identification and later proven innocent through, several recent exonerations illustrate the need for reform.
Willie “Pete” Williams
, represented by the Georgia Innocence Project, was released from prison in January and fully exonerated in February. He was convicted of rape in 1985 based on erroneous identifications from the victim and a witness.
, an Innocence Project client, was exonerated in January after serving nearly years in Texas prisons for a rape he didn't commit. After the victim first told police she didn't get a look at her attacker, they asked her again a week later to view a photo lineup. She told them Fuller looked "a lot like the guy" but she couldn't be sure. In a second photo lineup she said she was sure it was Fuller.
• In just over five years, 13 Dallas County, Texas, men have been proven innocent through DNA testing. In nearly all of the cases, eyewitness misidentification played a role in conviction innocent people.
for more on all 13 cases.
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