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Suggestive Eyewitness Identification Procedures and the Supreme Court’s Reliability Test in Light of Eyewitness Science: 30 Years Later

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Law and Human Behavior

Abstract

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling concerning suggestive eyewitness identification procedures (Manson v. Braithwaite, 1977, 432 U.S. 98) has not been revisited by the Court in the intervening 30+ years. Meanwhile, scientific studies of eyewitnesses have progressed and DNA exonerations show that mistaken identification is the primary cause of convictions of the innocent. We analyzed the two-inquiry logic in Manson in light of eyewitness science. Several problems are discussed. Ironically, we note that suggestive identification procedures (determined in the first inquiry) boost the eyewitnesses’ standing on three of the five criteria (used in the second inquiry) that are used to decide whether the suggestive procedures were a problem. The net effect undermines safeguards intended by the Court and destroys incentives to avoid suggestive procedures.

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Notes

  1. Or the benefit of the nearly identical ruling, Neil v. Biggers (1972), on which Manson was based.

  2. The current article uses the word “reportedly” as a qualifier to the “positive identification” claim that has been used repeatedly in previous writings about Glover’s identification of Braithwaite’s photo. In fact, no one but Glover was present when Glover first viewed the photo and the only record comes from later testimony from Glover himself. Glover’s later claim that the identification was positive and immediate must be treated with some caution given what we know today about retrospective memory distortions of the certainty and immediacy of identification decisions when later information appears to confirm the identification (e.g., Wells and Bradfield 1998). Braithwaite was later arrested in the apartment where Glover made the purchase, which might itself have constituted a form of confirming feedback.

  3. Although originally spelled out in Neil v. Biggers (1972), this article will refer to the five criteria used in the second inquiry (view, attention, certainty, time, description) as the Manson criteria, or the Manson factors, or the Manson reliability test.

  4. It is not known how often the suspect in a lineup is the actual culprit, but absence of the culprit in the lineup simply means that the police have focused their investigation on the wrong person. Because there is no reasonable-cause criterion for placing a suspect in a lineup, police are free to conduct a lineup on a mere hunch, which can lead to fairly high rates of culprit-absent lineups being shown to witnesses (Wells 2006). In all the DNA exoneration cases involving lineups, the actual culprit was not in the lineup and the witnesses made identifications nevertheless.

  5. In laboratory experiments, non-self-report measures, such as directed gaze and eye movements can be measured to study attention. But actual cases are necessarily dependent on retrospective self-reports of attention.

  6. From a constitutional law perspective, the right to the presence of counsel for live lineups but not for photographic lineups makes sense. Unlike a live lineup, the defendant himself is not present at a photographic lineup and, hence, he cannot assert a need for counsel’s assistance on constitutional grounds. Furthermore, from a practical perspective, it would be difficult and burdensome to permit counsel at photographic lineups for several reasons, including: the suspect in a photo lineup is not likely to have a lawyer, police might not know how to contact the suspect as he might be at large, commonly the suspect has not been charged, and photo lineups often take place in the field (e.g., witness’ home or place of business) on short notice. The fact that there is no constitutional right to legal counsel at photo lineups and the fact that practical problems largely prevent having defense counsel at photo lineups nevertheless do not make suggestive photo lineup procedures any less powerful or problematic. Hence, the urging by psychological scientists that photo lineups be administered using the double-blind procedure seems to be a logical solution to one of the more vexing problems in eyewitness identification evidence collection (Wells 1988; Wells et al. 1998).

  7. Postdiction is a term that psychological scientists have used to refer to “backward predictions” in which some set of facts currently available is used to estimate the chances that something happened in the past. Scientific experiments are perfectly suited for the establishment of cause-effect relations but generally ill-suited for real-world postdiction because these postdictions require knowledge of base rate statistics and multi-colinearities that are unknown and, in many cases, unknowable (Seelau and Wells 1995).

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Wells, G.L., Quinlivan, D.S. Suggestive Eyewitness Identification Procedures and the Supreme Court’s Reliability Test in Light of Eyewitness Science: 30 Years Later. Law Hum Behav 33, 1–24 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10979-008-9130-3

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