NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Eyewitness Reliability Questioned

September 28, 1999

The reliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal proceedings is being called into question in a number of jurisdictions across the United States, according to a story in the October issue of the ABA Journal, published by the American Bar Association.

According to the Journal article, several convictions have been overturned or are being reviewed in light of testimony from experts on the questionable reliability of eyewitness identifications.

Interest in revisiting eyewitness reliability can be attributed to the recent rash of exonerations based on DNA testing. Many of the convictions overturned in these cases were based on eyewitness identifications.

  • The Tennessee Supreme Court is expected to decide by early next year whether convicted robber Eddie L. Coley Jr., who is black and was convicted only on eyewitness identifications by two white clerks, should have been allowed to present expert testimony on the unreliability of eyewitness identifications when a victim of one race identifies a suspect of a different race.
  • In Georgia, the state Supreme Court is considering whether eyewitness expert testimony should be admitted in the robbery trial of Keith Johnson, whose accusers identified him from a photo lineup five months after the attack.
  • The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled in April that convicted rapist McKinley Cromedy was entitled to jury instruction on the dependability of cross-racial identification.
  • Similar rulings have been handed down this year in Utah and Massachusetts.

The Journal reports that many experts say that eyewitness reliability can be affected by factors such as race, stress, lighting, focus on weapons or other features instead of faces, the length of time a witness sees a suspect, and the length of time between the crime and the identification.

Source: News release, "ABA Journal: Eyewitness Reliability Called Into Question," American Bar Association, September 27, 1999.


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