According to The Innocence Project, when looking at their first 325 DNA exonerations, nearly three-quarters (72%) of the wrongful conviction cases were due to eyewitness misidentification. A scary thought. In the latter part of 2011, the New Jersey Supreme Court joined a growing list of institutions who were calling into question the use of eyewitness identification in criminal trials. The unanimously passed ruling by the New Jersey court noted that this type of evidence suffered from a “troubling lack of reliability” and called for the revision of the tests used to measure eyewitness reliability. The issue was taken up by the United States Supreme Court in November 2011.
The New Jersey court’s decision was based on recent scientific studies and was brought on by the 2004 case of Larry Henderson. Convicted of manslaughter, Henderson’s lawyers later argued that police involved in the investigation exploited the flawed memories of witnesses through suggestibility by influencing identification efforts with subtle suggestions aimed at leading witnesses towards falsely identifying Henderson as the killer. The ruling by the New Jersey court is a recognition of the fact that our memories are not videotaped playbacks of the past. In fact, memory is easily influenced and therefore fallible.
There are many factors that make eyewitness testimony far from fail-safe. Suggestibility which I mentioned previously is one of the most concerning. Identifying faces is already a difficult task. The difficulty increases when the high emotions present during crimes influences what an individual pays attention to. Our emotions narrow our range of attention, perhaps most notably by causing witnesses to crimes focus on any weapons rather than assailant’s faces.
Familiarity with faces can also lead to errors, as already distracted witnesses can sometimes identify someone merely because they are familiar with the individuals face but cannot remember the correct source of their familiarity – also called source monitoring. Being questioned after witnessing a crime can also be problematic because reactivating one’s memory of an event makes it easier to influence and create false memories.
In order to ward off any of these errors, a number of actions have been proposed to help maintain the integrity of eyewitness testimony. Notifying witnesses that they perpetrator may not be in the lineup, using similar looking people in lineups, presenting each individual in a lineup one at a time, making sure that the officer administering the lineup does not know who the suspect is, and lastly, developing effective interview techniques such as the cognitive interview which was created to facilitate memory retrieval. These suggestions are based on psychological research.
Going back to the court’s ruling, in 2012, the US Supreme Court did find in favor of law enforcement agencies when it decided to back eyewitness identification in an 8-1 ruling. Still, Justice Ginsberg again iterated the importance of guarding against suggestibility during eyewitness testimony both by putting in place the safeguards mentioned previously as well as through ensuring proper police conduct.
Goldstein, E. B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience. Wadsworth: Belmont, CA.
Mears, B. (2012, Jan 11). Supreme Court backs eyewitness identification with 8-1 ruling. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/01/11/us/scotus-identification/
Spoto, M. (2011, March 28). Camden manslaughter case has N.J. Supreme Court questioning reliability of witness identifications. Retrieved from http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/03/manslaughter_case_brings_i.html
The Causes of Wrongful Conviction. (n.d.) The Innocence Project. Retrieved from http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes-wrongful-conviction