The battle on the reliability of eyewitness testimony in Louisiana continues to rage. The latest scientific studies and reports may swing back and forth, but there is no disputing the alarming statistics.
According to the Innocence Project, DNA evidence has exonerated at least 360 wrongfully convicted individuals. Of those, inaccurate eyewitness testimonies helped put over 70% of those individuals in prison in the first place.
The problem with the process
Unfortunately, eyewitness testimonies such as those are the most widely accepted means of identifying suspects at trial. Furthermore, juries still find that evidence the most compelling during deliberation.
Still, the traditional suspect lineup procedure, proven to be highly suggestive to participants, blunders on. These flaws in the process often lead to mistaken identification:
- Administrators insert “fillers” that do not resemble the suspect or the witness description
- The administrators unknowingly give subconscious cues to the witness
- The witness often assumes the suspect is present in the lineup
Research has shown that all of these factors can increase the likelihood that witnesses will name a suspect, even if that person was not present at the crime.
The nature of memory
Scientific American believes that the key lies in the distinction between reliability and malleability. Like trace substances in a lab can contaminate DNA, the suggestion of the wrong person can alter an eyewitness’s memory.
Research demonstrates that witness identifications can be reliable under these forensic-like conditions:
- The sole use of the witness’s initial recall of the incident
- A fair lineup with impartial administrators
- Record of a confidence statement immediately after identification
Evidence shows that witnesses who are confident that they identified the correct suspect in a lineup directly after the event, under perfect conditions, are generally right. However, the conditions are rarely perfect, and the justice system continues to lean heavily on the “contaminated” eyewitness accounts obtained later in the process.