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Psych Research Prompts New Guidelines for Eyewitness Evidence


By Elaine Cassel

The malleability of eyewitness testimony has long been of interest to cognitive psychologists. Almost a quarter century after Elizabeth Loftus published the first research article on the limitations of eyewitness accounts, the United States Department of Justice has issued guidelines for obtaining and preserving eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

The legal system, especially in criminal cases, has always relied on the testimony of eyewitnesses. Although eyewitness evidence can be helpful in developing leads and identifying criminals, psychological research has provided ample empirical evidence that it is not infallible. University of Washington psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has been a leader in this area of research. Other psychologists, such as Solomon Fulero and Roy Malpass, have researched the effect of eyewitness testimony on juries. However great these research contributions, they rarely found their way into the practices of law enforcement officers or instructions to jurors.

Now, thanks to DNA evidence, that may all change. In 1996, the United States Department of Justice sponsored research into the use of DNA evidence to exonerate convicted criminals. The research report, Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science: Case Studies in the Use of DNA Evidence to Establish Innocence After Trial (1996, National Institute of Justice), identified 28 persons who were wrongfully convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Disturbed by that report, Attorney General Janet Reno established a multidisciplinary working group, consisting of law enforcement professionals, psychologists, criminologists, prosecutors, and defense attorneys, to recommend best practices and procedures for the criminal justice community to employ when working with eyewitnesses.

Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement was released by the Department of Justice on October 30, 1999. Psychologists Fulero, Malpass, and Gary Wells were members of the team. The recommended procedures apply to the direct questioning of eyewitnesses, as well as to procedures commonly used in criminal investigations, such as lineups, showups, and photographic spreads of mug shots. Basic principles such as refraining from asking leading questions and indicating that law enforcement has identified a suspect that the witness needs to confirm are among the suggested practices that may bring more fairness into the criminal justice process.

In her introduction to the report, Reno emphasizes that criminal justice is a search for the truth, and that investigations should exonerate the innocent as well as lead to conviction of the guilty. She praises the work of research psychologists, whose empirical research has led to the design and development of these procedures, and whose future work will be the foundation for additional reforms. You can find the complete report online at http://www.ncjrs.org/txtfiles1/nij/178240.txt


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