Supreme Court Will Revisit Eyewitness IDs – One Third of Eyewitness Reports Are Wrong

By ADAM LIPTAK

WASHINGTON — Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations. Those identifications are wrong about a third of the time, a pile of studies suggest.

Mistaken identifications lead to wrongful convictions. Of the first 250 DNA exonerations, 190 involved eyewitnesses who were wrong, as documented in “Convicting the Innocent,” a recent book by Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

In November, the Supreme Court will return to the question of what the Constitution has to say about the use of eyewitness evidence. The last time the court took a hard look at the question was in 1977. Since then, the scientific understanding of human memory has been transformed.

Memory is not a videotape. It is fragile at best, worse under stress and subject to distortion and contamination.

The unreliability of eyewitness identification is matched by its power.   There is almost nothing more convincing than an eyewitness report.

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