Book Examines Research on Eyewitness Identification to Improve Criminal Justice Practice

Eyewitness evidence plays a critical role in at least 77,000 criminal cases each year in the United States, but it has become commonplace to call that evidence inaccurate. In a new book by a University of Arkansas psychologist and his colleagues, the issue of accuracy is presented as more complicated and mutable.

In The Psychology of Eyewitness Identification, James M. Lampinen of the University of Arkansas and colleagues Jeffrey S. Neuschatz and Andrew D. Cling write that the truth about eyewitness testimony “is more complex and nuanced than the simple conclusion that eyewitness reports are inaccurate.” Rather, they say, key to addressing the problem “is to use psychological theory and research to develop practices and approaches that can be of service to the criminal justice system.”

The book offers an examination of research on the accuracy and reliability of eyewitness identification as well as a discussion of the implications of the research for social and legal policy.

Over the past three decades, researchers in psychology have identified a set of variables that can be used to assess the likely accuracy of the witness and inform police practice. That is, there are things that can be done to make the criminal justice system work better, to prevent an innocent person from wasting his or her life in jail while the actual culprit runs free.

“I would like the book to have an impact within research psychology but also with attorneys and law enforcement. It wouldn’t be a bad book for the media to read, too,” Lampinen said.

Hundreds of convictions in the United States have been overturned thanks to the use of DNA evidence. Both individually and socially, the cost of those convictions has been great: in the average case, a wrongly convicted person spent 13 years in prison, and in 70 percent of the cases, the exonerated prisoner was a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.

Moreover, the researchers write, “A mistaken eyewitness identification was a contributing cause in more than 75 percent of these wrongful convictions. Of the cases involving mistaken eyewitness identifications, more than one third of cases involved two or more witnesses making the same mistaken identification.”

According to Lampinen, both jurors and case law place a good deal of emphasis on how much confidence an eyewitness has in the identification. Time after time, research has shown at best moderate correlation between an eyewitness’s confidence and the accuracy of the identification.

For example, participants in an experiment watched a video clip of a crime from a security camera and then were asked to pick out the perpetrator from a line-up that did not include the culprit. Some participants were then told they’d picked the right person. Not only were those participants more confident in their identification, they also reported they’d paid more attention to the perpetrator and had a better view than did other participants whose identification had not been affirmed. Thus, the researchers note, confidence is complicated and can be influenced by cognitive, personality and social factors that are independent of identification accuracy.

“There is no magic bullet that will fix the problem of faulty eyewitness identification,” the researchers write. They suggest two alternatives that taken together can lead to systemic change. First, organizations like the Innocence Project should continue to clear individuals who have been wrongly convicted and raise public awareness. Second, they write, “social scientists must continue to conduct psycho-legal research with special emphasis on designing experiments that have more external validity” and continue to influence public policy and law.

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