The Problem


The criminal justice system (police, jurors, judges) places too much faith in eyewitness identification evidence. That is why faulty eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, playing a role in more than 70 percent of the convictions overturned by DNA testing. Memory is NOT like a video recorder. We cannot retrieve past events and replay them in our mind’s eye like we are re-watching an episode of Breaking Bad. Memory is reconstructive, which means that our memory for an event is potentially being updated and modified every time we retrieve it.

Pretend you are at a coffee shop, working on your laptop. You step up to the counter to get a refill and turn around to see someone grab your laptop and rush out the door. You follow the thief but he quickly disappears into a crowd. You report the crime to the police, and one week later the police report that they have a suspect and want to show you a lineup. Is the police suspect innocent or guilty of stealing your laptop? What factors influence your ability to make a correct decision from this lineup?

We encode only part of what we experience. This is true whether the experience involves a mundane encounter with a neighbor or the aforementioned laptop robbery. For example, right after the robbery, you ask nearby customers what they saw. One reports that the individual wore a leather jacket, another comments on the perpetrator’s wispy facial hair. This information influences your memory of the person’s appearance. It is easy to confuse what was suggested with what was actually experienced because we are not good at keeping track of the source of these details. It would be particularly problematic for the suspect if you once saw him in a local grocery store. Even though he did not steal the laptop, you are likely to select him from the lineup because he looks familiar. It is easy to misattribute the familiarity you experience as arising from the laptop robbery rather than from your grocery store encounter.

LEARN MORE:

➦ What Jennifer Saw
- Frontline

➦ Eyewitness: How Accurate Is Visual Memory
- 60 Minutes

➦ Innocence Project

➦ Center on Wrongful Convictions