National Research Council tackles eyewitness identification

National Research Council tackles eyewitness identification

Eyewitness accounts have always been a key part of criminal cases. But there have been too many wrongful conviction based on mistaken eyewitness identification. The NRC hopes to change this.

Eyewitness accounts have always been a key part of criminal cases. In countless instances, prosecutors have utilized depositions or testimony of individuals who allegedly “saw” what happened as a way to convict beyond a reasonable doubt.

However, such eyewitness identification has long been criticized. There have been too many cases in which individuals convicted of crimes have been exonerated as a result of mistaken eyewitness identification.

The National Research Council, however, hopes to change this. They have pointed out why mistaken eyewitness identification occurs and have released a list of best practices law enforcement agencies and authorities can use to enhance the accuracy of eyewitness reports.

National Research Council report

The National Research Council points to a number of reasons why mistaken eyewitness identification occurs such as:

  • Dim or inadequate lighting
  • Fleeting times that witnesses can view line-ups or photographs
  • Stress or fear of retribution

Further, according to the Council, “certain studies also have shown that eyewitnesses are more likely to make mistakes when making an identification among people of another race rather than when making an identification of a person from the eyewitness’s own race.”

Sadly, despite such risks of mistaken identity, eyewitness reports are still heavily utilized to help send individuals to jail.

Current measures

The report indicates that law enforcement officials are aware of the dangers associated and some departments are continuously taking proactive measures to improve the precision behind eyewitness identification.

But their “efforts have not been uniform and often fall short.” Insufficient training and the absence of standard operating procedures are among the reasons why behind present-day eyewitness reports are often inaccurate.

Key recommendations

As a way to mitigate such inaccuracies, the Council put together a report that offers key practices law enforcement can implement and follow to improve eyewitness identifications. They include but are not limited to:

  • Double-blind lineup and photo array procedures: A procedure where neither the witness nor administrator knows who the suspect is in the line-up or order. It’s recommended as a way to prevent unintentional gestures or cues that give away the identity of the suspect.
  • Uniform eyewitness instructions: A set of uniform instructions for all witnesses regardless of the situation as a way to maintain consistency.
  • Videotaped witness identifications: A procedure in which all eyewitness reports are videotaped in order to document the situation and access in the future if necessary.

Along with recommendations to law enforcement, the Council also provides up-to-date recommendations for courts and judges to use. The Council indicates that previous methods most utilize are obsolete.

For a complete list of recommendations in the report, individuals can visit the news release from the National Academies.

Keywords: mistaken eyewitness identification, inaccurate reports, criminal defense