New Georgia law seeks to prevent harmful eyewitness errors

Georgia lawmakers have reformed eyewitness identification protocols, but even with these changes, eyewitness errors still remain a serious risk.

Eyewitnesses are often viewed as an accurate source of information about alleged crimes. When witnesses make mistakes, though, the results can be devastating. Eyewitness errors have contributed to about 70 percent of wrongful convictions that were later overturned based on DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project. In some cases, innocent people accused of crimes with severe sanctions, such as sex offenses or serious violent crimes, were convicted due primarily to this evidence.

To address this threat, lawmakers in Georgia have recently passed new legislation regarding eyewitness identification protocols. The law, which enacts several changes that were recommended in a 2014 National Academy of Sciences report, should help better protect people in Lawrenceville against inaccurate eyewitness identifications.

Lineup procedure improvements

The legislation requires state law enforcement authorities to enact various changes prior to July 1, 2016. Noncompliance will not render eyewitness testimony inadmissible, but it may undermine the credibility of this evidence during trial. The changes outlined in the legislation include:

  • Officers who know the identity of the suspect should never oversee live lineups. During photo lineups, if the supervising officer knows the suspect's identity, a shuffle procedure should be used to ensure that the officer doesn't know which photo the witness is viewing.
  • Authorities should give eyewitnesses uniform instructions indicating that an affirmative identification won't terminate the investigation. This ensures that eyewitnesses don't feel compelled to pick someone out of a lineup.
  • Authorities should choose "fillers" who physically resemble the suspect to round out each lineup. Each live lineup must contain at least four fillers, while each photo lineup must consist of at least five fillers.
  • Authorities should ask witnesses who make identifications to give "confidence statements" about their certainty in the identification. This prevents witnesses from developing an inflated sense of confidence - and testifying in trial accordingly - after they have received affirmative feedback from authorities.

Together, these changes should significantly help reduce the risk that eyewitnesses will become biased or overconfident as a result of poorly conducted identification procedures. Unfortunately, though, these reforms won't completely eliminate the risk of eyewitness errors, which can still occur due to various less controllable factors.

Unaddressed issues

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitnesses may misremember alleged crimes for various reasons. Environmental factors, such as lighting or distance, may prevent a person from perceiving an event clearly. Personal characteristics and emotions can also give rise to inaccurate identifications. As examples, eyewitnesses are more likely to misidentify suspects of different races. Stressed or frightened witnesses are also less likely to remember events correctly, which makes accuracy an issue in potentially traumatic alleged offenses, such as assault and battery.

Even if an eyewitness initially leaves an incident with an accurate memory, that memory may quickly lose integrity. According to The Washington Times, the 2014 NAS report points out that human memories are not static. Memories can change while they are being stored in the brain or recalled later; often, they evolve to accommodate new information. As a result, it's not uncommon for eyewitness memories to become contaminated over time.

More cautious police procedures should help reduce the risk of this contamination, but still, eyewitness evidence should always be considered with caution. People facing criminal charges that hinge on this evidence should consult with an attorney about the best way of challenging that evidence or otherwise addressing the charges.

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