Of hurricanes and eyewitness testimony

Okay, the hurricane is the reason for the slow blogging.  Instead of blogging yesterday, I spent 13.5 hours driving home from the wedding in Portland, Maine after United re-scheduled me for a Wednesday flight home.  Since, I’m not going to go a whole weekday without offering you something, here’s the bulk of an Adam Serwer post along the lines of one I would’ve done myself if I had more time.  Short version: eyewitness testimony is horribly unreliable, and at least New Jersey (and I drove the whole turnpike yesterday) has figured this out.  Hopefully, it will be catching.  The gist:

Eyewitness misidentification is a leading factor in wrongful convictions — according to the Innocence Project, more than 75 percent of DNA exonerations involved cases of eyewitness misidentification. In what the Innocence Project called a landmark ruling earlier this week, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner wrote a long opinion holding that the legal standards for admissibility of eyewitness evidence should be modified…

It may seem shocking just how unreliable your eyes can be. The ruling cites studies that showed eyewitnesses picking the wrong person out of a lineup as often as they picked the right one, along with another study showing that even when witnesses are told the person might not be in the lineup, they’ll choose an innocent person about a third of the time. The reason is that our memories may seem vivid, they’re often not as accurate as we think they are. While lineups are constructed of similar looking individuals precisely to force the witness to think strongly about what they remember, this may result in witnesses unconsciously conforming their memory to the available choices.

And this next paragraph is really key:

The most complex part of eyewitness misidentification, though, is the fact that people who wrongly identify someone are often really confident they’ve made the right choice — and that confidence is persuasive in court. The ruling notes that a previous ruling’s observation that while “there is almost nothing more convincing [to a jury] than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says ‘That’s the one!’” the fact is that “accuracy and confidence may not be related to one another at all.” There’s not necessarily any malice in this — it’s simply an artifact of how our brains work.

I’ll throw in an obligatory plug for “Murder on a Sunday Morning” and the great 60 Minutes story on Ronald Cotton here.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

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