The Innocence Scholarship Column June 16, 2023
One of the most important areas of innocence scholarship is translating eyewitness research conducted in psychological laboratories into improved police lineup procedures. It is an example of how modern life is characterized by transforming scientific principles into usable technologies, a process that began when seventeenth-century discoveries in physics and chemistry fueled the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century. Today, without the work of Einstein (and Gladys West), there would be no GPS.
Translating scientific insights into practical applications is a complicated process involving many steps. One step which moves eyewitness research from the pages of scientific journals into more reliable lineup identifications is the publication of “white papers.”
A white paper is defined as a government or other authoritative report giving information or proposals on an issue. The term originated with the color-coding of covers of Government reports to Parliament in nineteenth-century England. The publication of a white paper has been significant in advancing lineup reform.
My column of May 31 noted that more than 2,000 eyewitness studies were published in psychology journals by the mid-1990s. Based on that data, eyewitness researchers knew they had developed ways to improve ID accuracy. But how could they get busy and powerful policymakers, including legislators, judges, prosecutors, and police executives to pay attention?
Part of the answer was to summarize the research and its implications in one authoritative source. A source that was readable and credible enough to persuade policy people to take action. A white paper can be thought of as intellectual ammunition in a policy debate.
James Doyle’s 2005 book, True Witness, which I recommended in the last column, describes the origin of the first eyewitness white paper. Gary Wells and other leading eyewitness researchers petitioned the American Psychology/Law Society (AP-LS), a division of the powerful American Psychological Association (APA), to authorize a “scientific review paper.” The AP-LS agreed and a paper was issued after experts thoroughly reviewed the research.
When the article by Wells and colleagues, Eyewitness Identification Procedures: Recommendations for Lineups, was published in Law and Human Behavior in 1998 as a “scientific review paper” with the backing of the APA, it had enormous credibility—official support by the psychological research community. This authoritative white paper then played a role in Attorney General Janet Reno’s program to advance lineup reform.
The 1998 white paper indicated the shortcomings of non-scientific lineup guides, reviewed the research, and on the basis of research findings recommended four reforms to improve lineup accuracy. First, the lineup administrator should not know who the suspect is. That is, the lineup is conducted in a double-blind manner. Second, the eyewitness should be told that the suspect might not be in the lineup. Third, the suspect should not stand out from the innocent fillers or foils. Fourth, upon making an identification the witness should be asked about their confidence that the identified person is the actual culprit.
While the world of police investigation was absorbing the message from the white paper, eyewitness psychologists were ramping up their research programs. They explored loose ends and new issues and added more useful findings. In 2014 the prestigious National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences published a report, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, that summarize the burgeoning research and issued eleven recommendations. (All National Research Council reports can be downloaded without cost.)
As research-based knowledge about eyewitness identification continued to expand, the eyewitness researchers affiliated with the AP-LS understood that the 1998 white paper had been superseded. Usable knowledge generated by eyewitness research now formed the basis for additional recommendations. In 2020 a second AP-LS white paper was published, making nine recommendations. This article, “Policy and Procedure Recommendations for the Collection and Preservation of Eyewitness Identification Evidence,” has been made available without cost by Law and Human Behavior.
The point of my column is that without innocence research and scholarship, based on scientific principles and solid evidence, effective reforms to create a more accurate criminal justice system are not possible. The eyewitness white paper saga shows that innocence reform is dynamic and expanding. This makes it difficult for policy people and administrators, like police chiefs, to establish settled procedures based on best practices. However, the practical world of policing will have to become more attuned to research-driven changes, just as medical doctors have to change practice as medical science advances. For now, an exciting ongoing rush of research—in only one area of innocence research—challenges criminal justice professionals and the interested public to keep up.
In the next column, I’ll describe some of the newer recommendations for making eyewitness identification in lineups more accurate.
Copyright © 2023 Marvin Zalman