Rethinking the Value of Eyewitness Identification


Despite decades of research disproving the reliability of eyewitness identification, the courts still rely on the practice to win convictions. The Associated Press reported that as a response to the errors of misidentification, a small group of police chiefs, courts and lawmakers are working toward passing tougher laws governing the handling of eyewitnesses and their accounts of crimes.


As states across the country are seeking legislation that overhauls eyewitness identification procedures, like Maryland did last week, prosecutors are still pushing back. According to Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association Prosecutors, the group feels it’s being attacked for using eyewitness testimony, as well as many other forms of evidence, to get convictions.


Gary Wells, an expert on eyewitness identification told the Associated Press, “It’s not the case that eyewitnesses are inherently unreliable. . . . [b]ut we can make it better by cleaning up the procedures around it.


The fact is that the most common element in all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence has been eyewitness misidentification. Misleading lineup methods have been used for decades without serious scrutiny.


A recent investigation conducted by NBC’s

The Today Show

put eyewitness memory to the test, setting up a social experiment where people witness a crime and are asked to identify the perpetrator. Almost everyone that participated misidentified the perpetrator within minutes of seeing them.


In addition to the recent reform adopted in Maryland, the Associated Press reports that seven states and numerous cities have transformed the ways in which eyewitness testimony is treated.


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