With production of documentaries such as Making a Murderer, it’s no wonder there has been public attention paid to high-profile cases of wrongful convictions. If you are unfamiliar, Making a Murderer follows the criminal case of Stephen Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Avery was convicted of rape and attempted murder in 1985 following a witness identifying him from a lineup. Avery served 18 years in prison before DNA tests revealed that he was not the terrible man who committed this crime. Cases such as these are not as uncommon as you make think. In fact, the number of wrongful convictions of innocent people is staggering enough that two law students created a project that exonerates the innocent and prevent future injustices.
The Innocence Project is a team of passionate individuals, from lawyers to researchers, who help the wrongfully convicted be freed from prison through DNA exoneration. To this day they have helped over 300 individuals be released from prison, who have unfairly served an average of 14 years before their release.
Eyewitness Testimonies & the Role of Research
Although thousands of people are grateful for the services of the Innocence Project, action can be taken prior to wrongful conviction so that their caring efforts are not needed. There are SO many areas of the legal system that can benefit from psychological research and SO many areas are underutilizing scientific findings. To better paint this picture, let me walk you through a possible scenario of wrongful conviction…
You are serving on a jury for a terribly sad case of rape and murder, such as jurors that sat in on the Stephen Avery case. There is little evidence that points to one suspect; a few alibis, some conflicting information, and overall no solid proof. The victim stands trial and confidently points out X as the man who assaulted her. It is now an easy decision for you, the juror, as you convict X as guilty.
In the courtroom, and eyewitness identification serves as very strong evidence as to who committed a crime, especially when coming from the victim. This isn’t to say that the juror, or the victim in the case of a false identification, should be blamed for this. At the time, they have no idea that they are putting away someone who did not commit the crime; they are voting guilty because it has been proved to them in court that the person did it. But, imagine the pain you and the falsely accused feel 15-odd years later when a DNA proves it wasn’t who you thought it was.
So, how do we overcome the possibility of innocent people being put in jail due to false identifications? There are thousands of psychological research papers dedicated to a variety of courtroom elements. The research ranges from juror deliberation, qualification of the judge and other officials, and eye witness testimonies. Psychological research can be utilized to evaluate current procedures, and most importantly, present likelihood of how legitimate a piece of evidence presented in the courtroom is. In the case of eyewitness testimony, lineup procedures are often investigated for their accuracy. Lineup procedures receive so much attention because they are the means to which witnesses are able to identify perpetrators. Therefore, decisions made in lineups carry a lot of weight in court. It is important that research in lineups are utilized because they bring to reality the fact that sometimes, witness identifications can be wrong. Research suggests that witnesses typically like to make a selection, whether they are sure the person they identify is the perpetrator or not. Additionally, research of lineups is also useful as they investigate how closely the procedures that ensure accuracy of the witnesses selection are actually followed.
Currently, there are 5 recommendations that lineup procedures, by law, should follow (Wells & Quigley-McBride, 2016):
1) The suspect should not stand out.
2) Only ONE suspect should be present, with the other individuals known innocent.
3) Both the witness, and the officer, should be blind to who is the suspect.
4) The witness should be explicitly told that the perpetrator may not be present in the lineup.
5) Witness should report their certainty following an identification.
Adherence to these recommendations ensures that lineups are executed effectively, and false identifications are minimized. According to Wells and Quigley-McBride (2016), on paper, these procedures are supported by many law enforcement agencies across the United States. However, it is hard to determine how closely each step is followed; although the recommendations are widely received, we still have hundreds of people wrongfully convicted, many of these people being falsely identified through lineups. From a citizen's standpoint, we can do our part by educating ourselves on the dangers of false identifications. You can get involved in the Innocence Project yourself, or, if you are ever selected to stand on a jury, you can do your part in ensuring that the evidence provided is scientific and fair. Always take an objective, scientific standpoint, and seek the truth!
For more information on the Stephen avery case, see:
For more information on the Innocence Project, see:
For more information on lineup procedures and how they are followed in American, see:
Wells, G. L., & Quigley-McBride, A. (2016). Applying Eyewitness Identification Research to the Legal System: A Glance at Where We Have Been and Where We Could Go. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 5(3), 290-294.