Safeguards for Eyewitness Identification Evidence

In October, a committee of the American Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive report on the current scientific evidence related to eyewitness identification evidence. The report was intended to:

  1. Critically assess the existing body of scientific research as it relates to eyewitness identification;
  2. Identify any gaps in the existing body of literature and suggest, as appropriate, other research questions to be pursued that will further our understanding of eyewitness identification and that might offer additional insight into law enforcement and courtroom practice;
  3. Provide an assessment of what can be learned from research fields outside of eyewitness identification;
  4. Offer recommendations for best practices in the handling of eyewitness identifications by law enforcement;
  5. Offer recommendations for developing jury instructions;
  6. Offer advice regarding the scope of a Phase II consideration of neuroscience research as well as any other areas of research that might have a bearing on eyewitness identification; and
  7. Write a consensus report with appropriate findings and recommendations.

The report and some of its related meetings can be accessed here.  However, The Innocence Project – an American based advocacy group for the wrongfully convicted – has provided an overview of the committees key findings on its website. Of particular interest are the committees key recommendations for conducting jury trials involving eyewitness identification evidence, including (extract from IP site) :

Conducting pre-trail judicial inquiry — Judges should inquire about the eyewitness evidence being offered. If there are indicators of unreliable identifications, judges could limit portion of the eyewitness’ testimony or instruct the jury on how to properly evaluate the reliability of the identification based on the scientific research.

Making juries aware of prior identifications — Because in court identifications can unduly influence the jury, juries should hear detailed information about any earlier identification, including the confidence the witness expressed at the time of the identification.

Permitting expert testimony — The report recognizes that expert witnesses who are capable of explaining the nuances of memory and identification are helpful in assisting juries in how to evaluate eyewitness testimony and should be permitted. The report also encourages local jurisdictions to provide funding to defendants to engage qualified experts.

Better instructing juries — Jury instructions can be used to educate jurors on how to properly evaluate the factors affecting eyewitness identifications and should be tailored to the relevant facts in a particular case.

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