Posts Tagged ‘identification’

The main point of my book Failed Evidence is to explain the real reasons that law enforcement resists science, and with that understanding to enable us to break through that resistance in order tohave better police work that reflects the best scientific  knowledge that we have.

So what a relief to find an example of law enforcement embracing science in a big way.

In the November 13 New York Times, “Jane Doe Gets a Back Story” tells how police have been aided by science in some very cold cases.  They have turned to isotope analysis to pinpoint the geographic origin of some unidentified human remains, and scientists have been able to do this with almost uncanny precision.  In other words, the scientists have not been able to identify the corpses, but they have pinned down where they came from, which might then lead to an identification.  The case featured in the article involved the frozen body of a woman found floating in a lake under a highway overpass northeast of Tampa, Florida, forty-one years ago.  The best guess was that the woman was white or Native American, and 17 to 24 years old.  Police got nowhere with this scant information.

Fast forward to this year, when scientists used shavings of tooth enamel and bones to come up with some “startling” findings:

The best evidence suggested that she grew up in Greece and came to the United States less than a year before she was killed. (Tarpon Springs, north of Tampa, has a large Greek-American population.) The research, according to Detective [Darren] “turned the case upside down.” Based on the findings, he provided information for an article that was published Oct. 11 in The National Herald, an international Greek-language newspaper. It was accompanied by the new reconstructed image of the victim and her clothing.

The case is still not closed. The woman’s identity has not been determined, and Detective Norris acknowledges that it is still a long shot. But he is confident that he is on the right track. “The best lead that has ever come in this case came because of the science,” he said…

What’s fascinating to me is the strong embrace of this scientific work by the police.  Because as readers of Failed Evidence know, that is not a given.  So what accounts for that embrace, while science on far more basic and common law enforcement methods like eyewitness testimony, interrogation of suspects, and basic forensics gets rejected?

Today’s New York Times gives us the latest chapter in how New Jersey has overcome law enforcement’s usual resistance to science.  In “New Jersey Court Issues Guidance for Juries About Reliability of Eyewitnesses,” we learn that the New Jersey Supreme Court has issued instructions for trial judges to give to jurors in cases in which eyewitness testimony plays a role.  These new instructions, which take effect on Sept. 4, reflect much of the best of what science has long told us about the fallibility of eyewitness identification.  At least in New Jersey, science has broken through law enforcement resistance.  For example, the Times quotes from the instructions on one of the most common misunderstandings jurors have of eyewitness testimony.

“Human memory is not foolproof,” the instructions say. “Research has revealed that human memory is not like a video recording that a witness need only replay to remember what happened. Memory is far more complex.”

The instructions also cover the difficulties of cross-racial identification, the time elapsed between an incident witnessed and the identification procedure, and how police officer behavior during the procedure might influence the outcome.

The new instruction follow the New Jersey Supreme Court landmark decision last year in the Henderson case, in which the court declared that it would treat as mandatory the state attorney general’s guidelines  for eyewitness identification issued in 2001 .

Law professor Brandon Garrett of the University of Virginia, author of the excellent and influential book “Convicting the Innocent,” points out in the Times article that the instructions are “far from perfect,” but also calls them “a remarkable road map for how you explain eyewitness memory to jurors.”   Professor Garrett is right on both counts, but I would emphasize the second one.  These new instructions solidify New Jersey’s place at the forefront of the effort to reform eyewitness identification procedures.

Chapter 7 of Failed Evidence contains the complete story of how New Jersey broke through the usual law enforcement resistance to science.  You can read it when the book is published by NYU Press on September 12, 2012.