Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations. Those identifications are wrong about a third of the time, a pile of studies suggest.See related Grits posts:
Mistaken identifications lead to wrongful convictions. Of the first 250 DNA exonerations, 190 involved eyewitnesses who were wrong, as documented in “Convicting the Innocent,” a recent book by Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia.
Many of those witnesses were as certain as they were wrong. “There is absolutely no question in my mind,” said one. Another was “120 percent” sure. A third said, “That is one face I will never forget.” A fourth allowed for a glimmer of doubt: “This is the man, or it is his twin brother.”
In November, the Supreme Court will return to the question of what the Constitution has to say about the use of eyewitness evidence. The last time the court took a hard look at the question was in 1977. Since then, the scientific understanding of human memory has been transformed.
Indeed, there is no area in which social science research has done more to illuminate a legal issue. More than 2,000 studies on the topic have been published in professional journals in the past 30 years.
What they collectively show is that it is perilous to base a conviction on a witness’s identification of a stranger. Memory is not a videotape. It is fragile at best, worse under stress and subject to distortion and contamination.
- How much do eyewitnesses really see?
- Eyewitnesses and the 'feeling of knowing'
- Eyewitnesses in staged test only 8% accurate
- More on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony
- Eyewitnesses miss big changes in their environment, like the person in front of them
- Study: 88% of police and sheriffs have no written policy on eyewitness ID procedures, even fewer follow best practices
- Why Carl Reynolds would make a lousy witness