The Catholic University of America


Can We Trust Our Eyes in Criminal Trials?

For most people, the image of a witness on the stand, carefully recounting their clear memory of evidence that convicts or exonerates a defendant, is a staple image of America’s system of justice.

It’s also misleading and often flat-out wrong, say experts.
The unreliability of human memory lay at the core of “Assessing Accuracy: The Reliability of Eyewitness Identifications in Criminal Cases,” the 2012 symposium sponsored by the Catholic University Law Review on Feb. 10 and hosted by K&L Gates, LLP.
The discussion was moderated by Columbus School of Law Professor Clifford Fishman. He noted that two recent legal developments—the state of Georgia’s execution of Troy Davis for a 1991 murder despite the lack of any physical evidence tying him to the crime; and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Perry v. New Hampshire that reaffirms faith in trial juries’ capacity to root out questionable eyewitness accounts—should prompt a new look at the role eyewitness IDs play in court.
The program’s keynote speaker was Brandon L. Garrett, (top) professor of law, University of Virginia School of Law.
“Eyewitness accuracy drops off within hours, not even days, of an event,” said Garrett. He described a “forgetting curve” that normal human memory experiences, as the vividness of an image or memory begins to slip down the slope of accuracy.
Thirty days after an event, said Garret, most people cannot recall details correctly, whether they realize it or not.
“A lot of police have no training on how to interview an eyewitness,” noted Garrett.
Other speakers included: Thomas R. McCarthy, partner, Wiley Rein LLP and co-director, Supreme Court Clinic at the George Mason University School of Law; Hon. Heidi M. Pasichow, associate judge, Superior Court of the District of Columbia; James Trainum, former detective, DC Metropolitan Police Department; and Dr. Richard Wise, associate professor of psychology, University of North Dakota.