Eyewitness testimony: can you believe it?

Eyewitness testimony may not be the "gold standard" many trust it to be.

Here's an important point. In the discussion of wrongful convictions, the debate often centers on the individual who was wrongfully convicted. This makes sense, because if they were wrongfully convicted, they have been grievously harmed and are entitled to redress for that wrong.

That is not the whole story. In addition, because some of these individuals may have had some criminal incidents prior to the arrest that led to their wrongful conviction, opponents of exonerations often focus on those issues, making the banal statement that "everyone in prison claims they are innocent." In essence, critics are asserting that the accused must be guilty of something.

That dismissal is merely a distraction, as these cases do not concern "everyone," but are focused on what occurred with a single individual. But leaving the focus there misses a very large point. And that is, if they were wrongfully convicted, it means that a guilty person is still free and potentially committing crimes.

Two injustices occur with wrongful convictions

While society must be concerned with the damage done to the individual wrongfully convicted, it must recognize that the harm to society is that justice has failed twice in this situation. An innocent person has gone to prison, often for many years and a guilty perpetrator is free, which poses a double harm to the public, in that the justice system has failed both its essential purpose of protecting public safety and by violating the rights of an innocent individual.

Many wrongful convictions are based on mistaken eyewitnesses. Eyewitness identification of suspects is often incorrect and is subject to bias created when police lineups are improperly created.

In a letter to The Marshall Project, a group of attorneys that works on wrongful conviction cases complains that a discussion of research on eyewitnesses is flawed in that it is focused on minor aspects of the debate on eyewitness veracity.

The specific issue dealt with eyewitness confidence after making an identification, and the role confidence statements play, as some research shows more quickly the statement is made, the stronger the correlation with the validity of their identification.

Systemic change necessary

Nevertheless, the issue of misidentification broader than this narrow point, and it is important that law enforcement institutes systemic protections that prevent misidentifications.

The attorneys point out that procedures such as "double blind" lineups, unbiased instructions to the witnesses, and the recording of the procedures used during the lineup, which permits a review and examination later for any mistakes or bias that may have occurred, all reduce the likelihood of misidentification.

The fact remains that more than 330 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence after being wrongly convicted with the use of eyewitness testimony. This alone should provide a caution that the highest degree of care should be taken when producing eyewitness identifications.

The price of errors in the area is not simply that an innocent individual goes to jail, but that a guilty individual remains free.