AJS to Study Eyewitness Identification Procedures

Judicature, January/February 2008 | Go to article overview

AJS to Study Eyewitness Identification Procedures


The AJS Institute of Forensic Science and Public Policy will conduct an 18-month national study designed to open a new era of accuracy and public confidence in our criminal justice system. Funded by a $700,000 grant from the JEHT Foundation, the Eyewitness Identification Field Studies is a unique initiative to enhance systematically the reliability and accuracy of eyewitness identification procedures in the United States. The Institute is joining forces in this study with the Center for Modern Forensic Practice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the Police Foundation, the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, and the Innocence Project.

The study will examine eyewitness identification procedures used in the field in an effort to link the latest developments in behavioral science and police investigation techniques. Dr. Gary L. Wells, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Iowa State University and Director of Social Sciences for the AJS Institute, leads a team of prominent scientists.

The advent of DNA technology has brought to the forefront confirmation of the tragedy of wrongful convictions in the United States. Various figures have been placed on the percentage of wrongful convictions involving mistaken eyewitness identification, but eyewitness identification is widely considered to be a leading cause of wrongful convictions. In 1998, United States Attorney General Janet Reno publicly recognized "the role that eyewitnesses play in supplying critical evidence about crimes." Mistaken identification not only places ah innocent person at risk of conviction, but also leaves the actual perpetrator free and able to commit additional crimes. The financial burden unjust convictions place on the criminal justice system, combined with the negative financial, social, and psychological impact on innocent persons and their families, and the erosion of public trust and confidence in our criminal legal system, is incalculable.

Scientists have proposed laboratory tested procedures that can improve the reliability of identification, including sequential rather than simultaneous presentation, double-blind administration, improved instructions, improved filler selection, and recording confidence statements at the time of the identification. In double-blind sequential administration, the administrator of the eyewitness identification presentation is not aware of, or cannot observe, the suspects' identifications. This obviates the risk of intentional or unintentional cues affecting the witness's identification. While this is among the most promising reforms, it is also one of the most controversial. …

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