Given the dangers of mistaken convictions based on faulty eyewitness estimony, how can we minimize such errors? The Innocence Project has proposed legislation to improve the accuracy of eyewitness IDs. These proposals include videotaping the identification procedure so that juries can determine if it was conducted properly, putting individuals in the lineup who resemble the witness’s description of the perpetrator, informing the viewer of the lineup that the perpetrator may or may not be in it, and ensuring that the person administering the lineup or other identification procedure does not know who the suspect is. Although only a few cities and states have adopted laws to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications, there seems to be a growing interest in doing so.
In addition, allowing experts on eyewitness identification to testify in court could educate juries and perhaps lead to more measured evaluation of the testimony. Most U.S. jurisdictions disallow such experts in courtrooms on the grounds that laboratory-based eyewitness research does not apply to the courtroom and that, in any case, its conclusions are mostly common sense and therefore not very enlightening. Yet psychologist Gary Wells of Iowa State University and his colleague Lisa Hasel have amassed considerable evidence showing that the experimental findings do apply to courtroom testimony and that they are often counterintuitive.
Science can and should inform judicial processes to improve the accuracy and assessment of eyewitness accounts. We are seeing some small steps in this direction, but our courts still have a long way to go to better ensure that innocent people are not punished because of flaws in this very influential type of evidence.
A number of factors can reduce the accuracy of eyewitness identifications. Here are some of them:
- Extreme witness stress at the crime scene or during the identification process.
- Presence of weapons at the crime (because they can intensify stress and distract witnesses).
- Use of a disguise by the perpetrator such as a mask or wig.
- A racial disparity between the witness and the suspect.
- Brief viewing times at the lineup or during other identification procedures.
- A lack of distinctive characteristics of the suspect such as tattoos or extreme height.
Note: This story was originally printed with the title "Do the "Eyes" Have It?"