Solving the problem of mistaken eyewitness

This is an area, up until the work that we did, that had no reform on eyewitness issues.”

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Imagine strolling down Pacific Avenue and witnessing an assault outside of your favorite shoe store. After getting a look at the person who committed the crime, you notice a few similarities between yourself and the alleged criminal. After the cops arrive and interview a few eyewitnesses, you get identified as a suspect. Investigators search your room and find a few suspicious items that could link you to the crime. Eyewitnesses identify you in a photo line-up, so you are sent to jail for six years for assault on a minor.

Mistakes such as this one are very common even today, but with a new eyewitness policy, hopefully this kind of incident will not happen in Washington in the future.

Stephen Ross, Assistant Professor of Psychology, is a member of the Washington State Eyewitness Policy Committee (WSEPC) who recently had an eyewitness standards policy adopted by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC).

DNA evidence was first introduced in the court of law to identify an individual back in the late ‘80s. Then came the opportunity to look at past cases in which people had been convicted to see if we have the right person or not. And one of the things that came out of that was the realization that a lot of individuals are in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.

“The first step,” Ross said, “was the endorsement from the WASPC, now we have to go to step two, the interviewing procedures. We have to ask ourselves, ‘How do we interview somebody, how do we talk to them first to try and get information from them?’” He adds, “Down the road, we will also look at the best practices procedure for interrogating suspects.”

Although it’s now 2015, this “best practices” policy is the first of its kind in Washington State. Before Ross arrived back in 2010, there had been no reform done in the state of Washington. So why is now the first time a “best practices” policy has been implemented in Washington State?

Ross explains, “I think there are two reasons; the most obvious reason, it’s easy to sit there and believe there isn’t a need for it. In 2010, we had the first set of identified wrongful convictions that were caused by mistaken eyewitness. That got on the radar for everybody. The second reason is there weren’t enough interested people that could organize together to effectively make change.”  The group consisted of those from the scientific, legal, and law enforcement communities that have a natural motivation in this area.

With the eyewitness identification policy in place, residents of Washington State are less likely to go to jail due to misidentification for crimes they didn’t commit.