A Prosecutor Defends Eyewitness Identification

It’s fairly well-established that eyewitness identification sucks, as a rule. There have been tons of scientific studies going back decades — and more are conducted all the time — on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The studies generally conclude that we’re really bad at noticing things, remembering them accurately, and identifying faces we aren’t already familiar with. Oh, and we really really suck at it when the face is of someone of another race. Meanwhile, the field of neuroscience is reporting breakthroughs literally every month in our understanding of how the brain creates memories, stores memories, distorts memories, processes sensory perceptions, processes faces, recognizes faces, et cetera et cetera et cetera. On top of all that, there have been studies demonstrating how traditional law enforcement methods can make all of this even worse, and what other methods would work better. And on top of all that is the incontrovertible data that eyewitness testimony has played a significant role in wrongful convictions that have been proven to be wrongful.

If you want to go read the scientific literature, please do. There’s a lot. If you want a quick-and-dirty version, I’ve been covering it in my comic for — holy hell, a year now? For those preferring a more, say, jurisprudential approach, Judge Alex Kozinski wrote an excellent summary of the situation in Criminal Law 2.0, his preface to this summer’s Georgetown Law Journal Annual Review of Criminal Procedure. Click on the link to read his views.

But in American jurisprudence, these are still minority views. The courts are slow to adopt change, and have been incredibly slow to adapt the law of eyewitness identifications to the scientific facts. It’s starting to happen. And I fully expect us to reach critical mass within a generation if not sooner. But the majority of courts aren’t there yet.

And law enforcement isn’t entirely on board, either. You’d think they’d want to be on board, though — after all, who wants to lock up an innocent person and leave the real bad guy free to do it again? But inertia, the investment of ego, and confirmation bias are much more powerful than you may suspect. Especially in law enforcement. You’ve seen the mind-numbingly bad arguments cops and prosecutors have come up with to insist someone’s guilty even after the DNA proves he isn’t — or even to fight tooth and nail against the DNA analysis that would prove it. There’s too much invested in having been right.

And there’s a lot of ego, inertia, and confirmation bias invested in the sense that eyewitness identifications — they way they’ve traditionally been done — are just fine and dandy.

Which brings us to the recent publication of “The Unreliable Case Against the Reliability of Eyewitness Identifications: A Response to Judge Alex Kozinski,” by Connecticut appellate prosecutor Laurie Feldman.

Feldman’s piece is an attempt to say Kozinski — and all the others who have problems with eyewitness identifications and testimony — have it all wrong. Things aren’t as bad as everyone says, and we shouldn’t jump to make unnecessary reforms. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.

Click on the link to read the whole thing yourself. I, for one, don’t find it terribly well reasoned, but your mileage may vary. From what I understand, her points are these:

(1) There’s no scientific proof that jurors put too much store in eyewitness testimony.

(2) There’s no good science saying eyewitnesses aren’t reliable.

(3) Scholarship here is agenda-driven, which distorts the results. Peer review only makes this worse.

(4) Just because someone was exonerated, that doesn’t mean he was innocent. So how does that mean the eyewitness who fingered him was wrong?

(5) So what if 72% of DNA-based exonerations were cases involving false I.D.? How many cases, where DNA proved guilt, involved an eyewitness’s correct I.D.? What if it’s the same number?

(6) We’ve only exonerated a teeny tiny subfraction of a fraction of people convicted on eyewitness testimony. That sounds like they’re reliable, not unreliable.

(7) Courts are allowing experts to testify about all this, and they shouldn’t. This exposes the jury to political agendas, and makes the scientists advocates instead of objective scientists. Courts are moving too fast to adopt reforms like this.

(8) It’s unwise to jump on the latest social-science fad to fix what ain’t broke. There’s not a single study saying that double-blind experiments are better than ones where the examiner knows who the suspect is. And simultaneous lineups simply get better results than sequential ones.

All I can say is:

(1) If her footnotes are to be relied upon, she clearly has a lot of reading to do. I can suggest a bibliography if she wants one. This recent National Academy of Sciences report is a good start. Heck, she’s welcome to take every damn book off my bookshelf right now because I need the space for all my resources for the comic’s upcoming forays into Constitutional Law.

(2) Ditto.

(3) Perhaps she should stop reading scholarly writings and “social science” sources, and focus on the objective scientific studies out there. I encourage her to maintain a healthy skepticism of sociology and meta-analysis and studies with small sample size or weird methods — but the good news is there’s a whole lot of good stuff out there with good clean numbers and healthy p-values.

(4) DNA exonerations pretty clearly show he ain’t the guy. The eyewitness who absolutely positively no doubt about it said that’s they guy? Wrong.

(5) Not the issue. The issue isn’t how many guilty people are properly convicted. The issue is, when an innocent person does get wrongfully convicted, what’s causing that, and how can we prevent it from happening again? When 72% of your wrongful convictions that you know to be wrongful because the DNA says so were based on a false identification? That’s a very strong correlation. Combined with the fact (sorry, it’s true) that juries do put a whole heck of a lot of weight on that false I.D., and it’s safe to say we’ve got causation as well. (Whereas 100% of wrongful convictions may have taken place in a courtroom with a judge, a very high correlation indeed, but there’s zero evidence that the presence of a judge played any effect on the jury’s verdict, so we can disregard that one.)

(6) Intellectually dishonest. You’re saying “you guys haven’t disproven all these other cases yet, so let’s presume those IDs were good.” Ignoring the fact that only a small teeny tiny microscopic percentage of cases where the defendant insists upon his innocence are ever taken up by folks like the Innocence Project. You’re also comparing the number of hits in the sample size to the overall population being studied. The fact is, an obscenely high number of hits in this statistically significant sample probably translates to an obscenely high number of hits overall.

(7) Fine. You’re not allowed to use DNA experts, either… Seriously? Draw up a timeline of courts adopting real meaningful reforms here and show me how it’s moving too fast.

(8) Apparently the latest fad = decades of research, and basic Science 101 recommendations for how to conduct an experiment that have been understood for ages. None of this is rocket science. None of this is remotely eyebrow raising to anyone with a genuine science background. If you really don’t think double-blind studies are proven to be effective, that they eliminate intentional and unintentional suggestion by the examiner, then you really really shouldn’t have skipped that day in 8th-grade Science class. As for simultaneous vs. sequential, you are ALMOST RIGHT!! Because sequential arrays DO result in fewer correct identifications, along with fewer false ones. Sequential arrays only solve the problem of relative-judgment witnesses who compare the faces in the lineup to each other. They’re best used with children, lower-IQ people, and all the people whose brains really work this way only they don’t know it and neither do you. All of whom, it so happens, are the ones making the MAJORITY of false identifications. Losing a few correct IDs (because during sequential procedures we all tend to raise our threshold for certainty, worrying that a better match might be coming up) is a small price to pay for ensuring so many innocents don’t have their lives and liberty and futures taken away by mistake. Isn’t it? And simultaneous lineups are only as effective once you’ve adopted the suggested reforms, including some you didn’t discuss.

This all sounds like another one of those prosecutors thwarting justice in the name of inertia.

My final recommendation to her would to be to allow herself to be receptive to the idea that innocent people do sometimes get convicted, that bad identifications do sometimes cause this, and that there are solutions that can prevent such injustices, can ensure that the cops don’t put the wrong guy in jail, can ensure that the real perp doesn’t remain free to do it again, don’t cost hardly anything, and are easy to institute. And if that’s the case, then why the heck are you so opposed to it? Do you want those preventable injustices to occur?

Because that’s kinda how you came off.

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