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Science shows eyewitness identification is often flawed


For many years, prosecutors have depended heavily on eyewitnesses to convince a judge or jury that a defendant committed a crime. However, in recent decades, it has become evident that eyewitnesses aren’t as reliable as the criminal justice system was giving them credit for.

It’s not that eyewitnesses purposefully identify the wrong suspects, but instead that our minds can be easily tricked into remembering something differently from how it actually occurred.

In fact, several studies have concluded that eyewitnesses only choose the correct suspect about half of the time, and it is widely now accepted that eyewitness identification can be problematic, especially when the process isn’t handled properly.

That’s why many advocates, including lawmakers, judges, criminal defense lawyers and police chiefs, want to toughen up the laws regulating the way police and prosecutors handle eyewitness identification.

For example, advocates say that the following requirements should apply to police lineups:

  • Lineups should be administered by people who do not know who the suspect is
  • Lineups should include more than one person
  • Suspects in lineups should be randomized
  • Police should document how certain the witness is of the identification at the time it is made

The New Jersey Supreme Court has already handed down strict guidelines regarding eyewitness testimony, and several other states have revamped their laws as well to better-protect the accused.

However, most prosecutors throughout the country are against the reform, arguing that it will take away important evidence that they depend on. But those in support of eyewitness identification reform say that prosecutors are choosing to ignore scientific data.

"We joke in the office that it's like climate change," said the state policy reform director for the Innocence Project told the Associated Press. "There's settled science, and then there's this group of people denying it."

Source: Associated Press, “Eyewitness testimony no longer a gold standard,” Nigel Duara, April 19, 2014

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