Upfront

The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to expand the rules that protect defendants against possibly unreliable eyewitness testimony in a Jan. 11 ruling against the plaintiff in Perry vs. New Hampshire. The high court voted eight to one to reject Barion Perry's claim that courts should be able to exclude eyewitness testimony when witnesses identify perpetrators under suggestive circumstances.

APA filed an amicus brief in this case that summarized research on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony and emphasized the need for courts to better scrutinize such testimony . Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg quoted several passages from APA's brief in her 18-page opinion, but she concluded that, in cases with no police misconduct, juries can weigh the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

"The court does not question the proposition advanced in our brief that eyewitness identifications are both important and often wrong," says David Ogden, of the law firm WilmerHale, who worked with APA's Office of General Counsel and other experts to prepare the brief. "In fact, the majority twice cites our brief in very respectful ways."

In one passage, Ginsburg cites research from the APA brief to suggest the court may be willing to issue a broader ruling that would address a range of potential problems with eyewitness identifications. However, the Perry case was too narrow to allow for such a ruling. In another passage, Ginsburg cites the APA brief as evidence that eyewitness identifications are a "uniquely unreliable form of evidence."

That understanding was exactly what APA hoped to articulate with its brief, says Donna Beavers, director of law/psychology coordination in APA's office of general counsel.

"Despite the result, we take pride in the fact that the science was recognized by both the majority opinion and the dissent," says Beavers.

—B. Azar