Despite the fact that social science has been well aware of these problems for decades, eyewitness testimony is still considered particularly powerful in the courtroom.
It is precisely because of these two characteristics of eyewitness evidence — that it flawed and subject to suggestion and that it nevertheless retains such power with juries — that the courts should go out of their way to make sure eyewitnesses have been properly vetted, and their testimony has been properly elicited.
Witnesses’ confidence is often falsely inflated by confirming feedback by the time they testify at trial.
Indeed, researchers recommend that the lineup be electronically recorded so there is a permanent record of what occurred.
In short, social science and psychiatric studies have shown that our attention is fleeting, our recollection ephemeral and our memory malleable.
The video below is one of the more well-known examples of how easy it can be to miss key details of a scene while we’re distracted with other things. If you haven’t already seen or read about it, you can take it right now before reading on.
On the other hand, the broader 2009 NSA study that cast doubt on a number of forensic specialties, including bite mark evidence and blood spatter analysis, hasn’t had the same impact.
And previous revelations about sloppy crime lab work and bad forensics haven’t exactly led to government officials rushing to the courthouse to seek out and mitigate the harm done.
And the courts haven’t been all that interested in ensuring that they do.
(Two exceptions are the state supreme courts in Oregon and New Jersey.) Most recently, the U. Supreme Court declined to rule that eyewitness identifications made under suggestive circumstances were a violation of a defendant’s due process rights. This week, a team of researchers at the National Academy of Sciences released a comprehensive report on eyewitness evidence.