California Needs Eyewitness Identification Reform

Faulty eyewitness identification played a pivotal role in 75% of the cases nationwide where DNA later exonerated the person convicted.
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Herman Atkins suffered for 12 years in a California prison -- for crimes he did not commit. Then DNA exonerated him. Mr. Atkins was a victim of faulty eyewitness identification.

Mr. Atkins' wrongful conviction for rape and robbery began when the victim and a witness identified him as the perpetrator after seeing his picture on a wanted poster for an unrelated crime. Then, the photo array used later by police also contained the wanted poster photo, which had already been viewed by the witnesses.

Watch three minutes of Herman's story on YouTube:

What happened to Mr. Atkins is not as uncommon as it should be. Eyewitness identification is notably unreliable. According to a detailed 2004 analysis of California wrongful convictions by San Francisco Magazine, faulty eyewitness identification was a factor in 60% of the 200 cases of people proven to have been wrongly convicted in the state since 1989.

Indeed, study after study has shown that faulty eyewitness identification is one of the most common causes of wrongful convictions. Faulty eyewitness identification played a pivotal role in 75% of the cases nationwide where DNA later exonerated the person convicted.

We now know through decades of empirical research that practical changes to identification procedures such as
  • cautionary instructions to witnesses,
  • effective use of fillers,
  • full documentation of the lineup procedures and a witness's statement of certainty,
  • and double-blind administration
can significantly improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications. (Please visit The Justice Project's web site
for more details of eyewitness identification reforms.)

In California, however, only the Santa Clara Sheriff and Police departments have voluntarily adopted these best practices.

The good news is that Senate Bill 756, sponsored by Senator Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles, Culver City), addresses the development of new guidelines for statewide eyewitness identification procedures.

The bill has already passed the State Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committee, and it will soon be heading to the Assembly Floor for a final vote. An earlier version of an eyewitness reform bill was taken up in the legislature last year, but it was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. If this new eyewitness reform bill passes the Assembly, the Governor will soon have an opportunity to sign into law this important reform.

It is also important to note that in addition to improving eyewitness identification, videotaping custodial interrogations and corroborating jailhouse informant testimony have been shown to help prevent wrongful convictions. Senate Bill 511, sponsored by Senator Elaine K. Alquist (D-Santa Clara), would require full electronic recording of interrogations in both juvenile and adult cases and Senate Bill 609, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), would require corroboration for jailhouse informants.

Given the documented cases of miscarriages of justice in California - and the research indicating that many of the errors leading to wrongful convictions can be prevented - we hope that Legislators will support these three essential bills, and that the Governor will ultimately sign them into law. Lawmakers have a duty, not only to the public safety, but also to the wrongly convicted like Herman Atkins, to take the necessary steps to ensure that the state's criminal justice system is as fair and accurate as possible.

John F. Terzano is the President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to address unfairness and inaccuracy in the criminal justice system, with a focus on the capital punishment system.

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