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A study of the reliability of eyewitnesses

By John Bohannon Oct. But how reliable is eyewitness testimony? A new report concludes that the use of eyewitness accounts need tighter control, and among its recommendations is a call for a more scientific approach to how eyewitnesses identify suspects during the classic police lineup.

For decades, researchers have been trying to nail down what influences eyewitness testimony and how much confidence to place in it. After a year of sifting through the scientific evidence, a committee of psychologists and criminologists organized by the U. Their 2 October report, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identificationis likely to change the way that criminal cases are prosecuted, says Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine, who was an external reviewer of the report.

As Loftus puts it, "just because someone says something confidently doesn't mean it's true.

  • In 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States in Perry v New Hampshire 152 side-stepped the issues concerning the appropriateness of the outmoded reliability standard 153 of eyewitness evidence;
  • Was he or she wearing a disguise?
  • No identification parade was held;
  • The fact that 19 months had passed between the robbery and the evidence given by Mbatha, does not appear to have been factored into the evaluation of his evidence;
  • In S v Henderson 19 the New Jersey Supreme Court was the first in State and Federal jurisdictions in the US that adopted a science-based approach to the evaluation of eyewitness evidence;
  • This would indeed be science serving justice.

The procedures of a criminal investigation can even distort eyewitness recall. The classic example is the lineup: The witness is asked to pick out the perpetrator from a group of similar-looking people.

But the police detectives who organize the lineup are usually the same ones who have identified or caught the prime suspect, making them invested in the eyewitness selecting their choice. A detective might smile, grunt, or nod approvingly when a suspect is chosen.

  • Mbatha's evidence of identification of the appellant was in respect of what he observed during the robbery at the bank and his subsequent dock identification;
  • The stressful scenario involved interrogation for a period of forty minutes in a brightly lit room while the interrogator faced the subject;
  • It has also been shown that high levels of stress can diminish an eyewitness' ability to recall and make an accurate identification.

So why is NRC weighing in now? But it would have happened sooner or later, Loftus says, given the increasing number of people convicted with eyewitness testimony who have been subsequently exonerated by DNA evidence. For some of the scientific controversies surrounding eyewitness accounts, the new report withholds judgment.

One more step

For example, the traditional police lineup can be performed in one of two ways: The witness can be shown people sequentially, or all of them at once. The goal is to minimize bias, but scientists disagree on which approach is better—or if it matters at all.

  1. The report calls this debate "unresolved.
  2. In Henderson the court boldly recognised that the legal standards governing the admissibility and use of identification evidence lagged far behind the findings of numerous studies in the social sciences.
  3. As Loftus puts it, "just because someone says something confidently doesn't mean it's true. Whatever the threshold, studies have shown, and the Special Master found, 'that witnesses consistently tend to overestimate short durations, particularly where much was going on or the event was particularly stressful.
  4. The appellant argued his own application as he had exhausted his right to legal aid representation. In Henderson the court boldly recognised that the legal standards governing the admissibility and use of identification evidence lagged far behind the findings of numerous studies in the social sciences.
  5. In part one of this article the research findings with regard to estimator variables 23 that were acknowledged in S v Henderson are discussed. An identification made by a witness under the influence of a high level of alcohol at the time of the incident tends to be more unreliable than an identification by a witness who consumed a small amount of alcohol.

The report calls this debate "unresolved. But it leaves the question of exactly how police departments should implement double-blind lineups unanswered.

The computer would run the lineup all on its own, choosing similar-looking people from a large database of photos. Computerizing lineups may be expensive and complicated, but considering "the damage to those innocent people's lives, and the huge cost of compensations," Loftus says, "that's the future.