Eyewitness Testimony

October 14, 2011 • Volume 21, Issue 36
Could new safeguards prevent misidentifications?
By Kenneth Jost


Demonstrators urge officials to halt the execution of Troy Davis (Getty Images/Jessica McGowan)
Demonstrators urge officials to halt the execution of Troy Davis on Sept. 21 as the countdown to his lethal injection at Georgia's Jackson State Prison entered the final hours. After the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene, Davis, 42, was executed for killing a policeman after a 15-year effort to discredit the eyewitness identifications that jurors relied on in convicting him. (Getty Images/Jessica McGowan)

Eyewitness testimony is often essential to criminal prosecutions, but witnesses sometimes misidentify an innocent person. Misidentifications played a part in three-fourths of the 273 wrongful convictions confirmed over the past two decades by DNA exonerations. Eyewitness scientists have long known of the unreliability of witness identifications, as confirmed through experiments dating back to the early 20th century, but police have been slow in changing ID procedures. The Supreme Court established limited safeguards against unreliable identifications in the 1960s and '70s, but experts say the rulings have had little impact and may actually mislead jurors in determining the accuracy of an identification. Now, the New Jersey Supreme Court has ordered stricter standards on identification testimony in the state's courts, including special instructions on the risk of misidentification even by witnesses who are absolutely certain. And the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in November in a case that could allow the justices to revisit the issues.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Law Enforcement
Apr. 21, 2017  High-Tech Policing
Sep. 16, 2016  Jailing Debtors
Jun. 07, 2016  Crime and Police Conduct
Apr. 06, 2012  Police Misconduct
Oct. 14, 2011  Eyewitness Testimony
May 06, 2011  Business Ethics
Mar. 17, 2000  Policing the Police
Nov. 24, 1995  Police Corruption
Sep. 06, 1991  Police Brutality
Apr. 19, 1974  Police Innovation
Sep. 02, 1966  Police Reforms
Jan. 12, 1954  Federal Police Activity
Apr. 01, 1932  Proposed Expansions of Federal Police Activity
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process