Today the National Academy of Sciences issued a landmark report evaluating the scientific research on memory and eyewitness identification. For the report, researchers conducted an in-depth review of three decades of basic and applied scientific research on eyewitness identification and provided recommendations for improving police identification procedures and for how courts handle eyewitness evidence.
The Innocence Project, which has long advocated for many of the reforms recommended in the report, is urging states and courts across the nation to enact the recommendations to prevent wrongful convictions.
“This report should serve as a powerful incentive for states and courts around the nation to enact reforms that will prevent eyewitness misidentifications. We’ve known for quite some time that eyewitness testimony is simply not as accurate as juries often believe, but we now have a definitive report that has analyzed three decades of science and makes proven recommendations for how law enforcement and the courts can prevent innocent people from being wrongly arrested and convicted,” said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project.
Eyewitness misidentifications contributed to 72% of the 318 wrongful convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence. The real perpetrators were eventually identified in 90 of these cases. While the innocent where languishing behind bars in these cases, the real perpetrators committed an additional 98 additional violent crimes (63 rapes, 17 murders, and 18 other violent crimes).
Recognizing that police eyewitness identification procedures can have a big effect on the accuracy of identifications, the report endorsed numerous best practices as means to reducing the likelihood of wrongful convictions, including that lineups be conducted “blindly,” meaning the officer who conducts the procedure be unaware of the identity of the suspect and that police collect a confidence statement from the witness at the time he or she makes an identification.
Ten states have already uniformly adopted these best practices through law, policy or court action, and many jurisdictions around the country have voluntarily adopted policies embracing these important best practices. Just last year, the International Association of the Chiefs of Police, the world’s oldest and largest organization of police executives, came out in support of these reforms.
The report also notes that the legal standard that most courts use regarding the admissibility of eyewitness testimony was established before most of the scientific research was conducted. Landmark decisions by the New Jersey and Oregon Supreme Courts have taken note of the robust research on memory and identification and have overhauled the way courts in those states deal with identification evidence. Today’s report makes recommendations for courts that will hopefully accelerate this trend.
For more detail about the report, read
the Innocence Project’s press release
A copy of the report is
Additional information about eyewitness misidentification is