Last night’s execution of Troy Davis, a Georgia man convicted of murdering an off-duty police officer largely on the strength of eyewitness testimony, has renewed a national debate over the accuracy of such witnesses’ identification of suspects, Maggie Clark reports at Stateline.org.
The first study questioning the reliability of eyewitness accounts was published more than a century ago. Over the last 30 years, “research in criminal justice, social science and behavioral health has pointed overwhelmingly to the conclusion that people aren’t very good at picking criminals out of a police lineup,” Clark says. Whether because of faulty memory, unconscious prompts by investigators or outright police misconduct, witnesses often pick the wrong person out of lineups or photo arrays.
In Davis’s case, nine witnesses testified that they saw him murder officer Mark Allen MacPhail in a parking lot in 1989, and the jury sentenced him to death. Since then, seven witnesses have recanted their testimony, with some claiming police pressured them to identify Davis.
In recent years a number of jurisdictions have adopted rules intended to reduce misidentification, such as having an officer who doesn’t know the suspect’s identity present the photo array or lineup, or informing witnesses that the suspect may not be among the group that they are shown. But most police departments still use the same eyewitness identification procedures that led to Davis’s controversial execution.