Monday, August 22, 2011

SCOTUS to reevaluate eyewitness IDs

The US Supreme Court has accepted a case out of New Jersey in which it will evaluate the reliability of eyewitness testimony for the first time in 34 years, reports Adam Liptak in the New York Times. His column opens:
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.

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.
 See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

I don't expect the high court to change much if anything at all. From recent rulings that were all in favor of law enforcement, prosecutors, or the judiciary, this will likely go the same way. Does anyone remember when the last time was that the SCOTUS made a sensible ruling regarding criminal justice issues? Maybe back in the 70's...

Paul UK said...

This has been continuously under review here following the Turnbull case in 1976 which requires Judges to warn juries about the possibility of mis-identification. Here are the Crown Prosecutions Guidelines on Witness identification.

Alan said...

I've had amateur-level training in what to look for, as part of a volunteer neighborhood patrol. I've practiced making mental notes upon seeing someone I don't know, even in stressless situations like a walk in the park. I still can barely capture anything reliably worth reporting if I had to report. If I were a juror, I'd be hard pressed to believe any witness ID.

Anonymous said...

How much do eyewitnesses really see? Not much.

Gadfly said...

Scott, did you see this?

NJ Supremes have already ruled that that state needs to revamp eyewitness issues, including things like *double blinding police lineups*! (SCOTUS of today would NEVER go for something like that, sadly.)

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits,
Thanks for the numbers & percentages. Cross your finger folks, this could lead to something big.

Re: 'Texas' - for 100 points.
Does anyone happen to know

*Percentage of wrongful
convictions (DNA & non DNA) tied to 'Positive Identifications' made by crime victims where the gross discrepancies were caught by those running the Line Up?

*Percentages of W.Cs. tied to allowing crime victims to explain why they failed to pick a suspect that fits the original description and allowed a second opportunity that resulted in another failure but charges were brought anyway.


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