At the 1985 trial where Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted and sentenced to death, five eyewitnesses testified they had seen Bloodsworth with the victim. All five were mistaken. When DNA tests were conducted in 1992, they showed that Bloodsworth was innocent. Kirk Bloodsworth’s case illustrates the dangers associated with eyewitness identification testimony, the single leading case of wrongful conviction.
Of the 321 people exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing through November 2014, 72% were misidentified by at least one eyewitness. Remarkably, in 33% of the post-conviction DNA exonerations two or more eyewitness made an incorrect identification.
Most people assume that eyewitness identifications are typically accurate, and that DNA exonerations are anomalous flukes. However, studies show the rate at which eyewitnesses select non-suspect lineup members during the course of a typical identification procedure hovers around 20%. The good news is that we can eliminate much of this error. Over the past 30-plus years, a large body of peer-reviewed, scientific research and practice shows that simple and easily implemented changes in administering eyewitness identification procedures can greatly improve the accuracy of identifications.
Unfortunately, the current legal framework, set up by the Supreme Court in the 1977 case Manson v. Braithwright, does not reflect the scientific consensus or promote best practices. The Manson balancing test directs courts to determine if a challenged identification procedure was unduly suggestive and, if so, balance the effects of suggestion against reliability factors like opportunity to view the perpetrator, accuracy of the description, and the witness’s level of certainty. Courts are directed to suppress the evidence only if there is a “substantial probability of an irreparable misidentification.” However, suggestive identification procedures are more likely to taint the reliability factors by making a witness more confident. Ironically, under the current test, the more suggestive the eyewitness identification procedure, the greater the likelihood an eyewitness will seem confident and report better viewing conditions.
The Innocence Project engages in litigation and legislative advocacy aimed at encouraging best practices and reforming the way courts evaluate the reliability of eyewitness identification evidence. This work has resulted in two landmark decisions, State v. Henderson, 208 N.J. 208 (2011), and State v. Lawson, 352 Or. 724 (2012), where the supreme courts of New Jersey and Oregon, respectively, overhauled their states’ tests for determining the admissibility and treatment of eyewitness identification evidence in criminal trials.
The Innocence Project’s work is not carried out alone but is based on partnerships with the defense bar and attorneys pursuing post-conviction claims to identify and litigate against the admissibility of questionable eyewitness identifications. The Strategic Litigation Unit partners with defense counsel in all stages of litigation, including pre-trial hearings, we lend amicus support in appellate and post-conviction litigation, and we consult with attorneys litigating eyewitness identification and forensic science cases nationwide.
To contact the Innocence Project’s Strategic Litigation Unit with a potential test case, please fill out our Online Intake Form.
- Can We Help?
- The Innocence Project’s Strategic Litigation Department seeks to identify test cases that have the potential to address the leading causes of wrongful conviction. If you are aware of a case with a problematic eyewitness identification and/or flawed forensic evidence and you believe we may be able to assist, please click here to fill out our intake form.
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