Recent (disturbing) cites to Manson v. Brathwaite

Manson v. Brathwaite is the seminal Supreme Court eyewitness ID case, which set out the constitutional standard governing the admissibility of eyewitness evidence in criminal courts. A couple of recent cites to Manson caught my attention, insofar as they highlight a couple of the myriad problems with the status quo re: admissibility standards and judicial reasoning on the subject of eyewitness ID reliability. Cites and quick summaries below.

In the first, a federal judge inexplicably relies on the eye contact skills native to the work of an insurance agent to find heightened reliability of an ID, with no empirical basis to speak of:

U.S. v. Welch, Slip Copy, 2007 WL 119954 (E.D.Pa., Jan 09, 2007)

Photo show-up in which federal agents arrived at witness’s workplace and showed single photo (driver’s license) to witness, and asked if witness knew the person. Witness said yes, that’s the guy who opened the fraudulent account you happen to be investigating. Court found that anticipated in-court ID was sufficiently reliable and not the result of a tainted process, citing the “benign motive” of the agents in conducting the photo show-up (they only haphazardly discovered that the office where the witness worked was across the street from the house they were searching, so decided to “stop on by” given that they were “unexpectedly” there during business hours). Court also relied on opportunity to view (5-10 minutes in well-lit room), and the “skill and appreciation for the importance to make eye contact” in the work of an insurance agent.

In the second, a state appellate court relies on the myth that law enforcement officers are better at identifying/recalling culprits than other people:

State v. Biggs, — S.W.3d —-, 2006 WL 4007009 (Tenn.Crim.App., Jul 21, 2006)

Photo show-up two months after incident, in which witness was undercover narcotics agent. Fourteen months after incident, witness was unable to ID defendant in court. Despite needless suggestivity, court found ID reliable, citing three opportunities to view (longest being two minutes), and also relied on the erroneous observation that cops are better at IDing than lay people.

How do we know this judge’s assumption is wrong? Because decades of research tell us so. Here are a few quick examples:

Christianson & Karlsson, Police personnel as witnesses to a violent crime, 3 L. & Crim. Psychol. 59 (1998) (cops are no better at identifying perpetrators than civilian college students).

Stanny, Claudia & Johnson, Thomas, Effects of stress induced by a simulated shooting on recall by police and citizen witnesses, 113 Am. J. of Psychol. 359 (2000) (no difference between cops and civilians on identification accuracy).

Woodhead, Baddeley, & Simmonds, On training people to recognize faces, 22 Ergonomics 333 (1979) (three-day training course on face recognition had no effect on identification accuracy).

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