PUBLISHED:October 06, 2008

Innocence Project volunteers learn about pitfalls of eyewitness testimony

Oct. 6, 2008 – Volunteers for the Law School’s Innocence Project witnessed a crime at a training session Sept. 30. Sure, it was a fake crime, but instructive nonetheless.

About halfway through the program, as Professor James Coleman was discussing appellate procedure, Innocence Project Program Director Toby Coleman ’10, started yelling at a figure disappearing through the classroom’s side door. Coleman then explained to the class that the perpetrator had stolen his water.

Amazingly, Coleman explained, Duke University police had already assembled a photo lineup (and apparently made copies, as well), which was distributed throughout the class. Thus began part two of the training session, a primer on the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.

As Coleman and Eric Eisenberg ’09 tallied votes, it became clear that there wasn’t much of a consensus on which picture in the photo lineup was actually the water thief. Many people in the room hadn’t seen much of anything, but voted anyway, which mirrors a problem with real lineups, according to Eisenberg. “Eyewitnesses often feel like they have to make an ID, like the police brought them down to the station for a reason,” he said. “They figure the police probably have the person in the lineup, they probably have the right guy, and if they don’t pick the right guy the investigation will fizzle out and no justice will be done.” Because of this dynamic, witnesses often pick someone who best approximates their memory of the criminal, even if they are really unsure, he explained.

Despite the fact that witness identification is often the backbone of prosecutions, studies show that it is among the more unreliable methods of catching a criminal, said Eisenberg.

Among many other problems with eyewitness testimony, Eisenberg said there was evidence contradicting the idea that crime victims or witnesses had excellent memories because the intensity of the event “seared” images into their minds. “It’s just not true,” he said. “Psychological research indicates that in high-stress situations, like crimes, people actually get worse memories. That ‘searing’ thing is a myth.”

Eighty-seven Duke Law students currently volunteer for the Innocence Project, pursuing claims by incarcerated felons who have plausible claims of actual innocence. The organization operates under the auspices of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. Professor James Coleman and Clinical Professor Theresa Newman are Duke's faculty advisers to the Innocence Project.