Recent Developments in Eyewitness ID Reform

Courtesy of Professor Jacqueline McMurtrie of the Innocence Project Northwest.

Here is a recently published article in the ABA Journal on eyewitness ID.


Gary Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor who’s been studying problems with police lineup procedures for 35 years, says the progress made in the past few years “seems like a runaway train” compared with what he witnessed during the first 30.

In the past year:

• Texas became the 10th state to pass a law requiring police departments to adopt written lineup procedures designed to reduce the risk of faulty identifications.

• The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling on the use of eyewitness identification evidence at trial.

• A new field study of police lineup procedures confirms what scientists like Wells have long been saying.

• And the U.S. Supreme Court heard its first case on eyewitness identification evidence in 34 years.

“We still have a long way to go,” Wells says, “but we’re definitely making headway.”

Last June, Texas joined nine other states in enacting legislation requiring all local law enforcement agencies to adopt written procedures addressing such things as who should administer the lineup and what kind of instructions the witness should receive. At the time, 88 percent of those agencies had no written procedures for conducting lineups. The written policies must be adopted by Sept. 1…

…the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last November in Perry v. New Hampshire, its first case on eyewitness identification evidence in 34 years. The issue there was whether an accused burglar had a right to a pretrial hearing on the admissibility of an eyewitness identification made at the scene of a crime under suggestive circumstances that weren’t necessarily the fault of the police…

…The court, in an 8-1 January ruling, acknowledged some of the shortcomings of eyewitness ID evidence. But the majority said it saw no reason to treat that evidence differently from other types of potentially unreliable evidence, such as testimony from a jailhouse snitch, absent police misconduct.

Wells, who was hoping the court would offer some substantive solution to the reliability problems in eyewitness identification evidence, is pleased that a majority of the justices seemed to recognize how flawed it can be. But he hopes he doesn’t have to wait another 34 years before the court decides to revisit the matter.

Read more about the eyewitness ID training in Texas here.

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