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Copyright (c) 1997 American Psychological Association, Inc. 
Psychology, Public Policy and Law


June / September, 1997

3 Psych. Pub. Pol. and L. 338


Jennifer L. Devenport and Steven D. Penrod, University of Nebraska--Lincoln and Brian L. Cutler, Florida International University


Although eyewitness identifications are among the most common forms of evidence presented in criminal trials, both archival studies and psychological research suggest that eyewitnesses are frequently mistaken in their identifications (B. L. Cutler & S. D. Penrod, 1995). In recognition of this problem, the legal system has established a number of safeguards to protect defendants from erroneous convictions resulting from mistaken identifications. These safeguards are based on assumptions regarding attorney, judge, and juror commonsense knowledge of the factors influencing eyewitness identification accuracy. This article addresses the validity of these assumptions by examining the role of commonsense knowledge in attorney, judge, and juror evaluations of eyewitness identification evidence. It concludes that, although these safeguards may not be as effective as the legal system intended them to be, there are a number of practices and policies that may be implemented to safeguard defendants further.

There is little question that eyewitness identifications are among the most important forms of evidence presented in criminal trials. The importance of these identifications is underscored by the fact that mistaken identifications appear to be the most frequent source of erroneous convictions. In their study of 28 cases of mistaken convictions in which defendants were subsequently cleared with scientific DNA evidence, Connors, Lundregan, Miller, and McEwen (1996) reported that all the convictions were predicated on mistaken eyewitness identifications. Furthermore, Huff (1987; see also Huff, Rattner, & Sagarin, 1996) implicated mistaken eyewitness identifications in 60% of the more than 500 erroneous convictions he studied.

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