National Academy Releases Report on Eyewitness Identification

On October 2, 2014, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences released a report entitled Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification. This is an important document, but not because it breaks new ground. Instead, it does an excellent job of summarizing what we do and do not know about eyewitness identification testimony, and it offers recommendations on how to collect and use eyewitness identification evidence in cases in which a criminal’s identity is in dispute.

 peep 2.jpg 

The care and detail of the Report, the distinction and the wide range of experience of the members of the committee that wrote it, together with the prestige of the National Academy, may make it uniquely influential.

The Report recommends that police use procedures designed to protect eyewitness memories from contamination, and to collect information about the reliability of witness identifications. Specifically, the Report recommends that police departments: 

  • Train all law enforcement officers in eyewitness identification, focusing specifically on factors that affect vision and memory, and on procedures to prevent contamination.
  • Implement “double-blind” identification procedures in which the officer who administers an in-person or photographic lineup does not know which of the people is the suspect, and thus cannot deliberately or unintentionally influence the witness.
  • Develop and use standardized witness instructions at identification procedures.
  • Document witnesses’ level of confidence in their judgments at the time of the identifications.
  • Videotape all identification procedures.

The Report also recommends that judges take steps to assess the value – and possible dangers – of eyewitness identifications by conducting pretrial inquiries about eyewitness identifications regardless of whether one of the parties raises an objection to the admissibility of the evidence.  In the same vein, the Report recommends that judges make juries aware of the pitfalls of eyewitness identification by admitting expert witness testimony, requiring detailed evidence of the circumstances of identifications, and giving jury instructions on how to evaluate eyewitness testimony.

Finally, the Report calls for better data collection and more scientific research. In particular, the Report finds that existing research does not support a conclusion one way or the other on the comparative value of sequential lineups – in which the people or pictures are presented one at a time – as compared to the older and more common practice of simultaneous lineups, in which a witness is shown a line of several people or an array of photographs all at once. The Report recommends additional and better studies comparing these two procedures. The Report also recommends the creation of a National Research Initiative on Eyewitness Identification to coordinate future research and help make use of its findings.

As of October 14, 2014, 35% of the exonerations in the Registry include mistaken eyewitness identifications, 509 cases out of 1446. The distribution of all known exonerations that include mistaken eyewitness identifications by category of crime is displayed in these graphs, and was discussed in a recent Registry newsletter.


-  Kaitlin Jackson & Samuel Gross




Female Exonerees:

Trends and Patterns


Only 8% of the exonerees we know about are women (119/1,432), about the same proportion as female prison inmates in the United States. 


There are two major, interrelated differences between female exonerees, as a group, and male exonerees.

Child victims: 40% of the women in the Registry (47/119) were exonerated of crimes with child victims, compared to only 22% of male exonerees (293/1,313). Most of these women were convicted of child sex abuse – 22%, compared to 11% of male exonerees – but none were convicted of sexual assault on an adult. In addition, nearly 30% of female homicide exonerees were convicted of killing children (15/51), but only 17% of male homicide exonerees (105/601).

Nonetheless, men account for 86% of exonerations with child victims because male exonerees outnumber females by 11 to 1.

No-crime cases: 63% of female exonerees were convicted of crimes that never occurred (75/119), three times the rate for men (21%, 271/1313). Seventy-five percent of female no-crime exonerations involved violent crimes (56/75); and in three-quarters of those cases the supposed victims were children (42/56).

Nearly 90% of women exonerated of crimes against children were convicted of violent crimes that never happened (42/47). Nearly 70% of these cases were in two comparatively uncommon categories:

  • Child sex abuse hysteria cases. None of the 26 women exonerated in a child sex abuse case was convicted of a crime that actually occurred. (By comparison, 27% of men exonerated in child sex abuse cases were convicted of actual crimes that other men committed.)  The major reason is that 80% of these women (21/26) were exonerated in "child sex abuse hysteria" cases.

From the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, some prosecutors and child welfare workers around the country became convinced that people caring for children, often day care workers and school employees, were sexually abusing those children on a massive scale. More than a hundred defendants were convicted as a result, often based on accusations including bizarre, unsubstantiated and highly improbable satanic rituals. The Registry lists 51 child sex abuse hysteria exonerees, 21 women and 30 men; all were convicted of crimes that never happened. They make up 0.2% of exonerations of men, but 28% of exonerations of women.

The most recent child sex abuse hysteria conviction in the Registry occurred in 1995. Since then, only one woman has been exonerated for any crime involving child sex abuse.

  • Shaken Baby Syndrome cases. Twelve exonerations involve "Shaken Baby Syndrome" or SBS (now called "Abusive Head Trauma"). In almost all, the exonerees were convicted on a now widely discredited theory that violent shaking of infants can produce immediate and extreme neurological damage or death without external or skeletal injuries. It now appears that these deaths and injuries were caused by unrelated accidents or undiagnosed pathologies.

Two-thirds of SBS exonerees are women (8/12), which is hardly surprising. One implication of the theory of SBS is that the infant was injured or killed by shaking by the last adult who took care of the child before medical personnel intervened, and women do the vast majority of the work of caring for infants.

Five additional women were exonerated after convictions for killing children who died by accidental means unrelated to claims of shaking.

A terrible consequence of these trends is that some innocent mothers –Teresa Engberg-Lehmer and Nicole Harris, for example –must grieve for children who died of accidental or natural causes, while in prison for killing those children themselves.

In sum, while most female exonerees were falsely convicted of violent crimes against adult victims, or of non-violent crimes, a substantial and disproportionate minority were convicted of violent crimes against children, usually violent crimes that never happened. Judging from known exonerations, women are the likely victims of false convictions for violent crimes that are believed to have been committed by care-takers in roles that are overwhelmingly filled by women – as parents and other family care givers, and as day care workers and teachers of young children.


- Kaitlin Jackson & Samuel Gross





​More than two decades after 18-year-old Hugiltu was executed in China for rape and murder, the Inner Mongolia Higher People's Court has exonerated him posthumously. Hugiltu (his full name) confessed in 1996, after 48 hours of interrogation, and was executed just 61 days after the crimes occurred. The Deputy President of the Court now says that the verdict was inconsistent with the evidence, issued a public apology and personally donated 30,000 yuan (about $4,800) to Hugjiltu's family. Many confessions in criminal cases in China are obtained by questionable practices. Some international experts hope this case will be a catalyst that improves investigations in a country where an estimated 2,400 people were executed last year. Others fear that without more transparency in criminal prosecutions, little progress will be made.

The Registry includes 20 American exonerees who were sentenced to death after falsely confessing.


​An FBI-funded Iowa State University research team led by psychology Professor Christian Meissner (at left) that is working to develop evidence-based interrogation techniques says the accusatorial method of interrogation widely used in the U.S. increases the likelihood of obtaining inaccurate information. The ISU team has developed an interrogation technique similar to the PEACE technique used in Britain. The theory underlying PEACE is that it is cognitively difficult for people to maintain lies and watching them attempt to do so provides valuable evidence of their deception. The ISU research team's methods allow suspects to provide information in a non-aggressive atmosphere, thereby decreasing the instances of false confessions and strengthening the evidence gathering function of interrogations.


Ricky Jackson was exonerated Friday after more than 39 years in prison - the longest an exonerated defendant has ever served before being cleared. He was convicted of murder, attempted murder and robbery in 1975 in Cleveland, Ohio and sentenced to death. Jackson's conviction was vacated and the charges were dismissed after the only eyewitness against him admitted his identification was a lie. One of Jackson's two co-defendants - Wiley Bridgeman was also exonerated and released Friday. Ronnie Bridgeman who was released in 2003 still awaits exoneration. (Jackson is pictured with Ohio Innocence Project attorney Brian Howe)


​The judiciary is not effectively enforcing criminal defendants’ constitutional right to disclosure of evidence tending show innocence, according to a study by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Veritas Initiative. As a result, the study finds, many prosecutors reveal very little information favorable to defendants, and do so as late in the process as possible. The study, issued November 17, identified 145 cases in which prosecutors failed to reveal favorable information to defendants, but found that in 86% of those cases courts held that prosecutors had not violated their constitutional obligations.


​Most parole boards require imprisoned defendants to admit guilt and accept responsibility for their crimes in order to be considered for release. That may be changing in response to the rapidly growing number of known exonerations, according to a New York Times story about Freddie Cox , who was paroled on October 15, despite his insistence that he is innocent of the murder for which he was imprisoned. At least several exonerees in the Registry were denied parole because they refused to admit guilt, including Charles Chatman, Dewey Bozella, and Thomas Doswell.


​A “group exoneration” is unfolding in Washington, D.C.  Federal prosecutors have moved to dismiss indictments against 28 defendants – including 14 who pled guilty and were convicted – because an FBI agent tampered with evidence.

In 2012, the Registry identified a dozen group exonerations across the country including over 1,100 defendants who were exonerated when large scale patterns of police perjury and corruption were uncovered. As we explained in 2012, “We do not include group exonerations in our database because they are fundamentally different from exonerations based on individual investigations and cannot usefully be studied together.” Since then, we have learned of at least two more such group exonerations, including an on-going one in Philadelphia involving more than 165 convictions that were vacated.


Women make up 8% of known exonerations, about the same proportion as female prison inmates in the United States.  … A substantial and disproportionate minority of female exonerees were convicted of violent crimes against children, usually violent crimes that never happened.  …Women are the likely victims of false convictions for violent crimes that are believed to have been committed by care-takers in roles that are overwhelmingly filled by women – as parents and other family care givers, and as day care workers and teachers of young children.

Read the full story here.


​The United States Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia will soon have the first Federal Conviction Integrity Unit in the United States. U.S. Attorney Ron Machen announced that the Unit will consist of one veteran prosecutor with responsibility for reviewing post-conviction cases in which the defendant has a claim of innocence. It is not yet clear when the Unit will begin to review cases.


The Arson Research Project recently released a report that describes the root causes of wrongful arson convictions, using several arson exonerations as examples. Paul Beiber, director of the project and author of the report, explains some of the overarching issues in a video on the Arson Research Project website. The Registry recently added a new Tag - "A" for "Arson" - that identifies exonerations in cases that included allegations of arson, whether or not the defendants were charged with or convicted of arson.


In State v. Crumpton, decided on August 21, 2014, the Washington State Supreme Court addressed the standard for granting post conviction DNA testing. The Court held that when a defendant requests a post-conviction DNA test "a court should evaluate the likelihood of innocence based on a favorable test result, not the likelihood of a favorable test result in the first place." The decision reversed the state Court of Appeals because that court failed to "include ...[a] presumption in favor of the convicted individual."

1 - 10  more Next