During law school, I took a class on capital punishment and learned that many wrongful convictions had something in common: a mistaken eyewitness ID. I read the work of Elizabeth Loftus, the psychologist whose research helped establish the limitations of human memory. The basic problem is that people often aren’t good at remembering the specific features of faces they’ve seen only once; they’re more likely to recall a general trait, like eye color or a mustache, that many people share. But if eyewitness testimony is fallible, Loftus explained, it is also potent. “There is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant and says, ‘That’s the one!’” she wrote in her 1979 book, “Eyewitness Testimony.”
Since 1989, mistaken IDs have factored into nearly 30 percent of about 2,800 convictions of innocent people tracked by the National Registry of Exonerations. And yet the legal system depends on them because the testimony of an eyewitness may be the only piece of direct evidence. Though no comprehensive data exists, one old but often-cited survey from 1989 suggests that eyewitness testimony is most likely used to solve at least 80,000 crimes each year.
The upshot is that eyewitness identification “presents the legal system with a challenge unlike any other,” Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the federal District Court in Manhattan writes in his recent book, “Why the Innocent Plead Guilty and the Guilty Go Free.” “Modern science suggests that much of such testimony is inherently suspect — but not in ways that jurors can readily evaluate from their own experience.”
As I became absorbed by Briley’s case, I wanted to understand more about the science of memory. What did the research suggest about the reliability of the identification Joseph made? Eyewitnesses like him often have the best intentions. Nonetheless, I learned, their error rate increases when more time lapses between the initial viewing of a person and the retrieving of that memory to make an identification. Cross-racial IDs become even weaker with the passage of time. The circumstances of a street crime itself can also affect accuracy. Victims and witnesses may have only a brief chance to view the perpetrator, and making an identification becomes harder with dim lighting, stress, fear and the distracting presence of a weapon. One study showed a “catastrophic decline” in accuracy — dropping as low as 18 percent — depending on a witness’s level of anxiety.
“Can you please help me get out of prison or refer me to somebody who can?”
For years as a journalist, @emilybazelon covered attempts to exonerate incarcerated people. But this letter led her to a very different story. She found him a lawyer: her sister. https://t.co/suhCzJkh09
— The New York Times (@nytimes) June 30, 2021