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Research Seeks to Assess How Eyewitness ID Speed is Interpreted Regarding Accuracy

March 9, 2021

By Ruthie Kesri

Criminal justice is front and center this election season. Politicians across the country are increasingly aware of the need for reforms addressing the high risk of wrongful conviction within this system.

Eyewitness Identification Speed: Slow Identifications from Highly Confident Eyewitnesses Hurt Perceptions of Their Testimony,” is a paper authored by Chad S. Dodson, Brandon L. Garrett, Karen Kafadar, and Joanne Yaffe, researching the causational factors associated with wrongful conviction. Particularly, the authors sought to understand the factors people involved in the legal system take into account when assessing eyewitness accuracy.

The authors approached this topic knowing confidence matters when law enforcement, jurors, and others, evaluate the accuracy of an eyewitness, and that those same people strongly consider eyewitness testimony when that eyewitness is highly-confident in the identification.

“The other piece of evidence that seems to be less appreciated, less understood, or at least less widely distributed among the research community is that the speed of identification also matters,” said Dodson.

Essentially, the authors’ experiments pitted a high-confidence identification with conditions in which participants learned that the eyewitness either took a relatively long time to identify the suspect, took a short amount of time, or learned nothing about the speed of the identification.

“We found that our participants discounted the highly-confident eyewitness when they took a longer amount of time [compared to] when no information was provided about identification speed or if [eyewitnesses] took a short amount of time,” said Dodson.

In effect, this paper proves that:

1. Highly confident eyewitnesses who made a relatively slow identification were perceived as less accurate.

2. Suspects are also perceived as less likely to be guilty if they were identified by slow-identifying, high-confidence eyewitnesses.

3. Identification speed is a significant factor that can cause people to discount the testimony of highly confident eyewitnesses.

What makes these conclusions important are the legal implications that come with them. This paper provides further evidence to other papers that postulate police should record both eyewitness identification time and the entire identification process.

As communities and people across the United States continue to grapple with the widespread, long-term impacts of wrongful conviction, novel research in this realm becomes increasingly vital for legal systems to grow past their indifference to innocence and error.

See the paper’s abstract below.

How persuasive is eyewitness confidence? Are highly confident eyewitnesses so persuasive that their testimony overshadows other countervailing evidence? To answer these questions, participants evaluated a highly confident eyewitness’s lineup identification. Participants learned that an eyewitness either quickly identified the suspect (e.g., “I’m sure it’s him. I identified him instantly.”), slowly identified the suspect (e.g., “I’m sure it’s him. I identified him after a while.”) or they learned nothing about the eyewitness’s identification time (e.g., “I’m sure it’s him.”). Highly confident eyewitnesses who make a relatively slow identification are perceived as less accurate and suspects are regarded as less likely to be guilty as compared to when eyewitnesses make a fast identification or even when no information is provided about identification speed. Identification speed appears to be one of the few variables that can cause people to regard with skepticism the testimony of highly confident eyewitnesses.

Ruthie Kesri is an undergraduate student at Duke University working this semester with the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.