Facts & Fictions in Mental Health: Do the "Eyes" Have It?; January / February 2010; Scientific American Mind; by Hal Arkowitz; Scott O. Lilienfeld; 2 Page(s)
In 1984 Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl and sentenced to the gas chamber—an outcome that rested largely on the testimony of five eyewitnesses. After Bloodsworth served nine years in prison, DNA testing proved him to be innocent. Such devastating mistakes by eyewitnesses are not rare, according to a report by the Innocence Project, an organization affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University that uses DNA testing to exonerate those wrongfully convicted of crimes. Since the 1990s, when DNA testing was first introduced, Innocence Project researchers have reported that 73 percent of the 239 convictions overturned through DNA testing were based on eyewitness testimony. One third of these overturned cases rested on the testimony of two or more mistaken eyewitnesses. How could so many eyewitnesses be wrong?
Eyewitness identification typically involves selecting the alleged perpetrator from a police lineup, but it can also be based on police sketches and other methods. Soon after selecting a suspect, eyewitnesses are asked to make a formal statement confirming the ID and to try to recall any other details about events surrounding the crime. At the trial, which may be years later, eyewitnesses usually testify in court. Because individuals with certain psychological disorders, such as antisocial personality disorder and substance dependence, are at high risk for criminal involvement, they are also at heightened risk for false identifications by eyewitnesses.