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Photo by Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press

New York — Laura and John Arnold Foundation (LJAF) today announced a grant to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct the first-ever comprehensive evaluation of the state of the science of eyewitness identification, a frequently used tool in the investigation and prosecution of crimes. Following an in-depth review of existing research on eyewitness identification, NAS will issue a report that will provide recommendations about how to improve the administration of lineups and photo arrays, and to ensure accurate and appropriate use of eyewitness evidence. NAS will also provide guidance on what additional research in these areas should be undertaken.

Eyewitness identification of criminal suspects plays a key role in many criminal investigations and cases, with an estimated 77,000 suspects identified by eyewitnesses each year. When these identifications are incorrect, however, they can hamper the ability of law enforcement to solve a crime and hinder the administration of justice. Mistaken eyewitness identification played a role in 76 percent of the first 250 cases in which people convicted of a crime were later exonerated by DNA evidence. And in nearly half of these cases, the real perpetrator went on to commit additional violent crimes while the innocent person was serving time for the original offense.

“It is critically important that we fully understand best practices in eyewitness identification, and we are pleased to ask NAS to take on this project,” said LJAF Vice President of Criminal Justice Anne Milgram. “Eyewitness identification is an enormously important law enforcement tool. But it is equally critical for public safety that these identifications be correct.”

With the LJAF grant, NAS will assemble a multi-disciplinary committee of leading experts to review relevant literature, meet with prominent researchers, and assess what is known — and what remains unresolved — about the science behind eyewitness identification. The committee will examine a variety of issues, including how a witness’s memory may be impacted by the following factors:

  • The procedures used to create and administer live and photo lineups
  • The length of time of a witness’s exposure to a suspect during the commission of a crime
  • The amount of time that elapses between the witness’s viewing of the perpetrator and the identification
  • The presence of a weapon at the time the witness viewed the perpetrator

NAS is expected to issue a report with findings, recommended best practices, and high-priority areas for future research in March 2014.