​How many rights have we wronged? - Cog Blog by Robert Russell

            Eyewitness Lineups are the most commonly used technique to put away bad guys. But what happens when our memory fails us and the legal system ends up putting away the wrong guy. How do you apologize to an innocent person that you have locked up in jail for multiple years? It is a true possibility that being incarcerated has ruined their lives; their families could have left them, they were probably fired from their jobs, and they could have been evicted from their homes.

            In no way am I saying that we should not lock up bad guys. I am very much for the legal system and bringing justice to those who are unjust. My concern though is when we start locking up bad guys based on memory and eyewitness testimonies alone. After learning about eyewitness lineup procedures, I was speaking with a friend about it and they said in a philosophy class they had, the professor had a random person come running into their class half way through, say some words, do a little dance and then left. The professor at the end of class asked them to write down everything they remember about the event and turn it in. Then next class he started with the same question and asked the students to write down and turn in everything they remember about the event. My friend said the variation between what everyone said was huge. She was shocked that everyone that saw the same event had such a different memory of what actually happened. This is evidence that are memory is not an exact replica of the past but rather a constant constructive process.

            So back to my question. If memory is not an exact replica of the past how do we get a credible eyewitness testimony? The good news is, this is already being worked on and improved every day. I would say one of the largest ways we are making things better is technology. Every day the people who do DNA tests are improving their capabilities to detect and identify DNA at a crime scene. That plus the fact that the amount of cameras, and the quality of the images, are always improving and growing will provide the best case scenario to get the right bad guy and put him away. More and more businesses and even police officers are now wearing cameras to capture everything and have an undisputable image. Cameras can remember a lot more accurate than humans can. Now on the memory side of it, the legal system can use better methods to run eyewitness lineups. They can make it a double blind procedure so the person running the eye witness doesn’t even know if a suspect is in the lineup. They can also tell the victim that the culprit may or may not be present in the lineup. Then you can also have them do a sequential lineup instead of a simultaneous lineup. You can have the victim tell a sketch artist everything they remember about the culprit then one at a time bring in the lineup “suspects”. Each person the victim should describe why they are right or wrong, this would cause the victim to think more deeply about the culprit and hopefully increase the number of correct IDs.

            This even relates to the recent outbreaks of accusations against law enforcement officers who choose to use deadly force. Some people who were eyewitnesses say that the officer had no other choice and they were being attacked, while other witnesses say the “victim” was walking away and were shot ruthlessly in the back. Unfortunately there are only about two people who really know what happened and that is the officer and the victim. Again this is where technology comes into play, most police officers are starting to be required to wear cameras. This is to ensure everyone’s safety. This is to protect police officers who were just doing their job as well as innocent people who were a victim of police brutality. A camera does record exactly what happened whereas a person only has a reconstructive image of what happened. This is the best and most accurate solution to avoid this eyewitness lineup issue.

            All of the eyewitness lineup procedures show us that memory can fail us and it is not an identical replica of the past. Our memory can be easily influenced and is already trying to reconstruct things. We can improve the number of correct IDs by being careful with the way we run lineups, the only way to make them close to perfect however is technology. DNA testing as well as more camera that video record the event itself. They also sell some defensive pens where you stab the person who is attacking you and it collects some of their DNA right in the pen.