Judicial Notebook

Troubled by "research on the perils of eyewitness identification," the Connecticut Supreme Court recently decided that jurors must be instructed about findings from this literature in cases in which the identification procedure used did not include a warning to the witness that the suspect might not be present in the lineup (State v. Ledbetter, 2005). Although the court refused to require that police warn witnesses "that the perpetrator may or may not be among the choices in the identification procedure," it exercised its "supervisory authority to require an instruction to the jury in those cases where the identification procedure administrator fails to provide such a warning, unless no significant risk of misidentification exists." This case illustrates the need for psychologists to work through multiple channels in order to effectively impact the legal system.

State v. Ledbetter

Laquan Ledbetter was convicted of robbery on the basis of a "show-up" eyewitness identification. The victim, Brian Leonard, was attacked by five men and shortly thereafter called the police and described the attackers, their vehicle and the general direction in which they had been traveling. After the police stopped a vehicle fitting this description, they brought Leonard to the location of the stop, and Leonard identified Ledbetter as one of his assailants.

On appeal, Ledbetter claimed that the trial court improperly admitted the identification into evidence, arguing "that the identification was unnecessarily suggestive because Leonard knew that he was going to a location where five black males had been stopped in a black car...several police cruisers were present with their headlights on, some of the cruisers had their emergency flashers on, several uniformed police officers were present, the five suspects were the only individuals present who were not uniformed police officers, and the suspects were all handcuffed."

The court found that the trial court had not erred in admitting the identification. While recognizing that show-up procedures are "inherently and significantly suggestive," the court found that the identification procedure was not "unnecessarily suggestive" and that the identification was sufficiently reliable given Leonard's opportunity to view the assailants, his degree of attention, the accuracy of his description, his degree of certainty and the short span of time that had elapsed since the attack (see Neil v. Biggers, 1972).

Nonetheless, the court recognized the importance of eyewitness research findings that misidentification rates are increased when identification procedures imply that a suspect is present in the lineup or witnesses are not informed that the suspect might not be present. The court also recognized findings that affirmatively warning witnesses that the suspect might not be present results in decreased rates of misidentification without decreasing the rate of correct identifications (see, e.g., Bradfield, Wells & Olson, 2002; Steblay, 1997; Wells, Small, Penrod, Malpass, Fulero & Brimacombe, 1998).

In balancing the "rights of defendants" in light of this psychological research with the "administrative autonomy of law enforcement agencies," the court refused to require that witnesses be warned "that the perpetrator may or may not be among the choices in the identification procedure." However, the court did require that jurors be instructed about the findings of the psychological research in any future cases in which such a warning is not given.

The court instructed, in part: "…Indicating to a witness that a suspect is present in an identification procedure or failing to warn the witness that the perpetrator may or may not be in the procedure increases the likelihood that the witness will select one of the individuals in the procedure, even when the perpetrator is not present. Thus, such behavior on the part of the procedure administrator tends to increase the probability of a misidentification."

Psychological research's impact on the legal system

Psychological research findings can influence court decision-making through a variety of channels, including amicus briefs and expert testimony. But even when the courts view psychological research as relevant and probative, the degree to which they can implement systemic changes may be limited. Effectively impacting the legal system is likely to require ongoing collaborative interaction with the broader system, including entities such as courts, commissions, administrative agencies and legislatures. Eyewitness research is a strong example of psychological research influencing the justice system through a wide range of mechanisms. Psychologists have played a central role in bringing psychological research findings about eyewitness testimony to the legal system by establishing a deep empirical literature, serving as expert witnesses, working with the Department of Justice to establish national guidelines for eyewitness evidence and engaging in jury instruction reform (see Wells, Malpass, Lindsay, Fisher, Turtle & Fulero, 2000).

Further Reading