Witness identification of suspects remains a key element in many criminal prosecutions, even though researchers have long contended that eyewitness identifications are often unreliable. In fact, the misidentification of a perpetrator played a role in 72% of convictions later overturned through DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
A new report highlights the problems with eyewitness identification of suspects and calls for a renewed emphasis on improving related standards and practices. The report, titled Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, was produced by a committee of experts at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
“This is a serious issue with major implications for our justice system,” committee member and psychologist Elizabeth Phelps told Science magazine.
The committee solicited input from experts and practitioners, and also sifted through published and unpublished research. The resulting 120-page report recommends 11 measures aimed at improving eyewitness identifications in three areas: the law enforcement community; the court system; and the scientific community. For example, the committee recommends that law enforcement agencies use standard processes and instructions for having witnesses view live lineups or photo arrays.
All law enforcement officers should also be trained in eyewitness identification and related areas, such as vision and memory.
Lineups and photo arrays should be conducted as double-blind procedures, meaning that neither the witness nor the officer administering the lineup knows which individual is the suspect. In addition, officers should document the level of confidence that witnesses express in choosing suspects from lineups or arrays. The entire process should be videotaped, the October 2014 report recommends.
Could Computers Improve Eyewitness IDs?
Numerous variables can influence eyewitness identifications, including lighting at a crime scene, the race of the witness and suspect, the presence of a weapon and the degree of stress a witness experienced, the committee noted.
Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who has written about eyewitness identification, told Science that the ideal process for having witnesses identify suspects would be through the use of a computer system. A computer would put together the array of photos to be shown to witnesses. Using a computer would also preclude any intentional or unintentional cues an officer might convey to the witness during the process.
“That’s the future,” Loftus told the magazine.
In a court setting, eyewitness identifications should be subject to judicial scrutiny, the committee recommends. Juries should be told when the identifications were made and the confidence level of the witnesses who made them. Judges should allow expert testimony on eyewitness identification if necessary, and jury instructions should include all factors jurors are to consider in assessing the accuracy of the identifications.
Finally, the committee recommends improving the science of eyewitness identification through the establishment of a National Research Institute specifically for the discipline.
“Human visual perception and memory are changeable, the ability to recognize individuals is imperfect, and policies governing law enforcement procedures are not standard,” the committee’s co-chairman, Thomas Albright, said in a statement.