Eyewitness Testimony Reliability and Issues

In 1976, in the UK, the Devlin committee was formed to investigate the reliability of eyewitness testimony, the Devlin committee released its findings in the Devlin report; The Devlin committee looked into a number of cases that had been proven as wrongful convictions due to eyewitnesses misidentification, these cases ranged from 1908 – 1972. Several of the cases that lead to the Devlin committee being formed were the cases of, Alfred Beck, Oscar Slater, Luke Dougherty and Laszlo Virag; Even though the Devlin committee found that a number of eyewitnesses had misidentified suspects as the culprits, the committee reported that the findings did not warant eyewitness testimony from being disallowed.

However the Report did recommend that statutory safeguards should be implemented, but the government took no action. Professor Glanville Williams, one of the Devlin committee members, reported that “Neither the Beck case at the turn of the century nor the many miscarriages of justice since then have sufficiently impressed those concerned with criminal justice of the dangers of identification evidence. To mention some of the instances in late years: three occurred alone in the space of a few months in 1967-68.

A memorandum of the National Council of Civil Liberties published in 1968 gave details of 15 cases from 1966 onwards; in most of these a person was convicted on identification evidence and the mistake was either established or very likely; in a few of them the defendant had not gone beyond being committed for trial when by a happy accident the mistake was discovered”. (Burnside, J. , 2007, Visual Identification of suspects. Retrieved on 13/2/2008 from http://www. wikicrimeline. co. uk). (fig2) In 1996, in the US, The Department of Justice released a report entitled “Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science. “

This report looked into 28 of the cases that had been exonerated due to DNA evidence, out of these 28 cases the Department of Justice found that 24 were due to eyewitness’ misidentifying the suspect. The Attorney General commented on the cases and the uses of DNA being used for exonerating cases, “DNA aids the search for truth by exonerating the innocent. The criminal justice system is not infallible, and this report documents cases in which the search for truth took a tortuous path. ” (U. S. Department of Justice, 1996. Convicted by Juries, Exonerated by Science.p. iii. ).

Protection from eyewitness misidentification (Fig3) To help protect individuals from being misidentified by an eyewitness, Code D, of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, or PACE as it is referred to, is the code of practice that police officers must follow while identifying a person. Section 1. 2 covers identification by an eyewitness, it states that an eyewitness must be given a chance to identify a suspect either by video identification, which is the most common to date, or by some other means, the eyewitnesses ability to identify the person they saw is tested and the police must provide safeguards against mistaken identification.

Annex A of Code D deals with Video Identification, point one says that it is the responsibility of an identification officer to make sure that images used in comparison of a suspect are of likeness, the identification officer is not allowed to be directly involved in the case. Point two says that there must be only one suspect shown along with pictures of 8 other individuals of similar appearance, if there are two suspects who look similar they may be shown together as long as pictures of 12 other individuals are shown and not just 8.

One case that changed how British Courts dealt with eyewitness testimony was the case of Regina – v – Turnbull and another (1976), Turnbull and Camelo were sentenced to three years after being charged with conspiracy to burgle. Turnbull appealed against the decision, it was pointed out by Lord Widgery C. J. , who was in judgement of the appeal, that there were problems with the eyewitness testimony. Since this case Judges have been given guidelines to follow when eyewitness testimony is in dispute, the guidelines are known by the anagram ADVOKATE.