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How accurate are eyewitness identifications in criminal cases?

The National Research Council, a nonprofit dedicated to helping “shape sound policies, inform public opinion, and advance the pursuit of science, engineering, and medicine,” recently published a fascinating report suggesting that limitations in both human visual perception and memory can sometimes result in inaccurate eyewitness identifications in criminal cases involving strangers.

In addition, the report also outlined some best practices that law enforcement can adopt to limit the possibility of these inaccurate eyewitness identifications.

What role does human visual perception play in making inaccurate eyewitness identifications?

According to the authors, visual perception can be influenced by conditions present during the commission of a crime, including stress, dim lighting, short viewing times and the presence of inherently distracting elements like weapons. Furthermore, they indicate that any gaps in visual recollection of a crime can be inadvertently filled by prior experiences with the world, a reality that can result in incorrect — and sometimes biased — perceptions. 

What role does human memory play in making inaccurate eyewitness identifications?

The authors suggest that despite people’s best efforts, their memories are continuously evolving. Accordingly, their memories about a certain criminal incident are constantly being processed, stored and retrieved, such that they might not be entirely accurate regarding what actually transpired.

Are law enforcement officials doing anything to combat the possibility of inaccurate eyewitness identifications?

The authors indicate that many police departments across the nation are taking steps to limit inaccurate eyewitness identifications. However, they also state that these efforts have produced mixed results at best owing to at least three factors: 1) the absence of uniform and thorough training, 2) the absence standard operating procedures, and 3) the presence of unintentionally suggestive actions/statements.

In a future post, we’ll discuss the best practices suggested by the authors for law enforcement to adopt in order to limit the possibility of inaccurate eyewitness identifications of strangers in criminal cases.

In the meantime, consider speaking with an experienced legal professional if you’ve been unjustly charged with any sort of felony or misdemeanor. Together, you can discuss your rights and formulate a plan to prove your innocence.

Source: The National Research Council, “Report urges caution in handling and relying upon eyewitness identifications in criminal cases, recommends best practices for law enforcement and courts,” Oct. 2, 2014    

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