Supreme Court to Re-Examine Eyewitness Evidence

It's about time. Adam Liptak of the New York Times reports the Supreme Court will revisit eyewitness identifications for the first time in 34 years. Mistaken eyewitness identification is the leading cause of 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.”


See the Innocence Project here and PBS' What Jennifer Saw. I've written about this so many times, having served on the NIJ task force that released this Guide for Law Enforcement on Eyewitness Testimony in 1999. Here's an article in plain English I wrote about faulty memory and eyewitness evidence, Could This Happen To Your Spouse or Child. There are lots more examples at TruthinJustice.

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    scott, i can appreciate your hesitancy (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by cpinva on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 04:51:06 PM EST
    in believing the cited statistics. however, consider the factors involved with eyewitness identification:

    1. probably a total stranger.
    2. only briefly seen.
    3. if a crime occurring at night, briefly seen in poor light.
    4. the witness would be in a high stress situation, being the victim of a crime and all.
    5. cross-racial identification is, at best, problematic. your odds of correctly identifying someone of your own race are much better than someone of a different race. the old "heck, they all look alike!" comment is actually true.

    the cases that truly baffle me are those where the eyewitness ID is the only evidence, with no other physical or corroberating witness ID available. what are those jurors thinking?

    They are Thinking What I Would... (none / 0) (#8)
    by ScottW714 on Tue Aug 23, 2011 at 10:10:18 AM EST
     ...think, case closed, this upstanding citizen has no reason to lie and they swear on a stack that the saw the defendant do the crime.

    Now if someone instructed me to the accuracy of eye-witnesses, it would be cause for suspicion and then everything else would have to re-examined.  It's a game changer.

    It just blows my mind that people like myself thought eye-witnesses were more accurate, not infallible, but hitting better than 333.  


    Anybody (none / 0) (#1)
    by Ga6thDem on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 02:09:14 PM EST
    willing to guess as to what the Supreme Court will say?

    hard to say (none / 0) (#2)
    by Abdul Abulbul Amir on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 02:15:05 PM EST

    Eyewitness is much more reliable when identifying someone you have known for a long time, but is pretty bad when trying to remember the face of an unknown person glimpsed briefly and under stress.

    Pretty Sure No One is in Prison... (none / 0) (#4)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 03:28:44 PM EST
    Because someone they knew for a long time made a mistake.  On purpose, sure, but that's not what they are going to look at.

    Eye Witness Identification (none / 0) (#3)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 03:25:53 PM EST
    Not sure what the SCOTUS is going to look at, but there are certain procedures detectives can use that reduce misidentification.

    This is frightening from the article:

    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.

    The Constitution guarantees the right to confront your accusers, which more than not would be a witness.  It will be interesting to see what the court decides.

    I have a hard time believe 1 in 3 identified is wrong, that just seems like a number that cannot be known, and it can't be that high, can it ?

    I would think this would have to be true of non-criminal interaction to some degree.  I can't say that I have ever misidentified anyone, sure I forget names, or maybe where I know them from, but to think someone was this, to find it wasn't them, unlikely.  Yet in criminal cases, that number is 1 in 3 ?

    I'm disagreeing, just a hard number to swallow.

    I'm kind of surprised (5.00 / 1) (#5)
    by Ga6thDem on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 04:31:43 PM EST
    that it's only 1 in three and not more like 1 in 2 that are misidentified when you consider things like crimes that happen and night and eyewitnesses that might have undiagnosed bad eyesight and a whole host of other problems as to actually seeing the perpetrator.

    I don't find it hard to believe (none / 0) (#7)
    by sj on Mon Aug 22, 2011 at 05:29:32 PM EST
    It takes longer than a single short meeting for me to remember a face and/or name.  I've tried to improve my facial recognition synapse but don't really notice an improvement.

    I noticed this when I first got a dog.  The dogs I would remember when we next met; the owners not so much.  So if I were a victim of a crime I would only feel confident identifying the perpetrator's dog.  Which s/he is not likely to have.


    "your spouse or child..." (none / 0) (#9)
    by diogenes on Tue Aug 23, 2011 at 10:54:12 PM EST
    If eyewitness evidence is completely discredited, then a lot of guilty people will walk.  Rapists, murderers, robbers, and child molesters commit many crimes before their arrests and have high recidivism rates.  Think about your spouses and children who will be random victims.
    At least most people wrongfully convicted from eyewitness evidence have cases that are pushed by prosecutors because they have fairly extensive criminal histories and thus "seem" likely to have committed the crime.  Prosecutors aren't as likely to go after Sunday School teachers who are randomly and wrongfully identified.