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ISU prof’s findings throw eyewitness testimony into doubt
Research conducted by an Iowa State University professor challenges a long-established Supreme Court ruling that permits eyewitness identifications that are obtained through “suggestive” law enforcement procedures.
“Of the 224 people in the United States who have been wrongfully convicted by juries of committing a crime, about 77 percent — or 172 of them — were cases of mistaken eyewitness identification,” said Gary Wells, an ISU psychology professor who was featured on CBS News this weekend.
Wells and graduate student Deah Quinlivan published a paper in a journal of the American Psychology-Law Society last month, documenting their findings that eyewitness testimony obtained by suggestive means is not reliable. The two take direct aim at the 1977 U.S. Supreme Court decision Manson v. Brathwaite, which permits such identifications as evidence.
“[I]t turns out that mistaken eyewitness identification accounts now for more convictions of innocent people that all other causes combined,” Wells said. “Now that’s been a surprise, I think, to the legal system. It has not been a surprise for psychologists because we’ve been doing work well before forensic DNA testing came along to prove these cases on eyewitness identification.”
The published report documents how both biological science (via DNA) and social science (via eyewitness identification experiments) have shed new light on eyewitness identification errors, which are much more prevalent than that Supreme Court could have surmised in 1977. The authors conclude that it is now time to change current eyewitness identification procedures.
“Today, police carry out very complex evidence collection procedures with physical evidence such as blood, hair and fiber that have to conform to precise protocols and careful documentation,” they wrote. “Clearly, police would be capable of carrying out careful non-suggestive protocols with eyewitness identification evidence as well, if courts were more assertive in demanding it.”
Wells, who helped develop the first set of national guidelines for police on eyewitness evidence, was featured on the CBS News show “60 Minutes” on Sunday. The camera crew for the show spent a day with him at Iowa State University.