The New York Times' Adam Liptak previews the upcoming Supreme Court case of Perry v. New Hampshire, which will consider the role of eyewitness testimony in the American legal system. As Liptak writes:
Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations. Those identifications are wrong about a third of the time, a pile of studies suggest….
In November, the Supreme Court will return to the question of what the Constitution has to say about the use of eyewitness evidence. The last time the court took a hard look at the question was in 1977. Since then, the scientific understanding of human memory has been transformed.
Indeed, there is no area in which social science research has done more to illuminate a legal issue. More than 2,000 studies on the topic have been published in professional journals in the past 30 years.
What they collectively show is that it is perilous to base a conviction on a witness's identification of a stranger. Memory is not a videotape. It is fragile at best, worse under stress and subject to distortion and contamination.