Memory on Trial: The Inaccuracy of Eyewitness Identification

After decades of scientific research on human memory has demonstrated the need for reform in the use of eyewitness evidence in criminal cases, courts are finally catching on. Last month in Perry v. New Hampshire, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the validity of using eyewitness testimony for the first time in more than three decades. In an August ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court outlined greater scrutiny for eyewitnesses and stricter guidelines for police lineups.

Because the brain can’t easily retain many specific details and is highly susceptible to suggestion, scientists say that witness testimony should be viewed more like trace evidence, with the same fragility and vulnerability to contamination. “Memory is weak in eyewitness situations because it’s overloaded,” says Barbara Tversky, a psychology professor at Columbia University. “An event happens so fast, and when the police question you, you probably weren’t concentrating on the details they’re asking about.” About 75 percent of DNA-based exonerations have occurred in cases where eyewitnesses have made mistakes.

Researchers are trying to use their findings to make trials fairer and testimony more reliable instead of dismissing eyewitness accounts altogether. Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, found that the accuracy of lineups improves when the possible suspects are presented to witnesses in sequence, rather than all at once, as in the traditional lineup. The downfall of side-by-side lineups, Dr. Wells said, is that “if the real perpetrator is not in there, there is still someone who looks more like him than the others.” It also helps if the officer working with the witness doesn’t know who the suspect is, to avoid influencing the outcome.  Wells says police should also tell witnesses it’s okay if they can’t pick a suspect out of a lineup.

TADP applauds these important reforms. As we have seen, eyewitness accounts can put a defendant away for a long time, or lead to their execution. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the recent execution of Troy Davis, where seven of the nine eyewitnesses in his case recanted after originally testifying that Davis murdered an off-duty Savannah, Georgia police officer in 1989.

Photo by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

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