Law versus Science and the Problem of Eyewitness Identification

By Eckley, Timothy S. | Judicature, January/February 2006 | Go to article overview

Law versus Science and the Problem of Eyewitness Identification


Eckley, Timothy S., Judicature


Law versus science and the problem of eyewitness identification True Witness: Cops, Courts, Science, and the Battle Against Misidentification, by James M. Doyle. Palgrave MacMillan. 2005. 223 pages. $24.95.

The; he haunting nature of Franz. Kafka's The Trial lies in its everyman aspect: the main character "K." inexplicably finds himself mired in the vagaries of an unfathomable legal system from which he cannot escape. Imagine, however, if it were not fiction. Imagine you were one of the thousands of innocent people imprisoned in the United States for a crime you did not commit.

In March, 1985, ex-marine Kirk Noble Bloodsworth was tried and convicted for the brutal murder and sexual assault of a nine-year-old girl and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers. He was law enforcement's prime suspect; the prosecution had its man. Five eyewitnesses testified at trial that they had seen Bloodsworth with the victim. After serving two years on death row, his conviction was overturned and he was retried, convicted a second time, and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. It was a crime he did not commit. It's a crime that remains unsolved.

After serving nearly nine years in prison as an innocent man, Bloodsworth was exonerated through DNA testing in 1993 and was released from prison five months after his mother passed away. He was the first person exonerated from death row by post conviction testing utilizing DNA scientific advances. The details of Bloodsworth's story are far from unique.

According to the Northwestern Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology from 1989-2003 340 people were exonerated in the United States. The advent of DNA technology and improved forensic techniques has accelerated the rate of exonerations beyond everyone's expectations, concomitantly exposing alarming weaknesses in the American criminal justice system.

Documented exonerations in America date at least as far back as 1820. What may be surprising, however, is that the oldest, most reliable, most relied upon form of identifying a criminal suspect-eyewitness identification-has been shown to account for more wrongful convictions than all other factors combined. Frailties of human memory and perception have been at the heart of debates about the criminal justice system in this country for nearly 100 years. Only recently, however, in conjunction with the development of peer-reviewed, verifiable psychological science, has the legal system truly begun to acknowledge the prevalence of inaccurate eyewitness identifications and to take steps to prevent the inevitably tragic consequences.

In True Witness, James Doyle presents fascinating insights into the world of high-stakes academia fighting to make a difference in mainstream America. More precisely, Doyle traces the history of the struggle of social scientists attempting to effect fundamental changes in the American criminal justice system by laying bare the too-often catastrophic results of blind adherence to and faith in fickle aspects of human nature.

Doyle launches frequent broadsides at the justice system, and frankly universally indicts everyone involved in the administration of justice-law enforcement, lawyers, judges-as being "derisive" towards, "patronizing" of, "hostile" to, and "reflexively" dismissive of psychology specifically, and all of science generally. The oft-repeated criticism of the court system as harboring an ongoing "hostility" and "contempt" towards science is overstated, but that tone is consistent with the balance of this fascinating nonfiction work on the history of psychology and the law, which reads like a novel.

Doyle begins with an entertaining redux of the turn of the 19tn century heavyweight bout over the role of psychology in the courtroom fought by Hugo Munsterberg, the "father of applied psychology," and Dean John Henry Wigmore, a towering legal scholar of the age. The story concludes with Attorney General Janet Reno, an unsung but crucial hero in the "law-versus-psychology battle," and Iowa State psychology professor Gary Wells and his vision of how "psychology could play a role in improving the world," by improving the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness identifications and procedures. …

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