Jamal K. Mansour: Eyewitnesses can often get it wrong

Scotlands academics have a key role to play in helping police with criminal identification. Picture: Michael Gillen.

Scotlands academics have a key role to play in helping police with criminal identification. Picture: Michael Gillen.

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Public confidence in ­Scotland’s justice ­system is essential for its ­efficiency, and protecting people from crime is an ever-present ­concern for society. Yet when ­mistakes are made, that confidence is eroded and the guilty can be left free to commit further crimes.

Where a prosecution depends on eyewitness identification, the risk of a miscarriage of justice due to ­mistaken recognition is well-known.

Worldwide, the statistics are alarming. Since its inception in 1992, the Innocence Project, a US organisation that advocates on behalf of the wrongfully convicted, has been instrumental in 349 exonerations based on DNA evidence.

More than 70 per cent involved inaccurate eyewitness identification. Whilst some of those errors were deliberate, the National Exoneration Registry found that eyewitnesses mistakenly believed they had identified the criminal correctly in 43 per cent of the 873 exonerations in the USA from 1989 to 2012.

There are many high-profile ­examples closer to home. Take ­William Mills, from Glasgow, who was arrested for stealing £8,216 from a branch of the Royal Bank of Scotland after four eyewitnesses identified him as the thief.

Police raided his home and took him away as his children looked on. He spent six months in prison before being ­convicted and ­sentenced to nine years. DNA ­eventually linked someone else to the crime and Mr Mills was freed.

Scotland is well placed to become a world leader in the ­conduct of eyewitness identification and will soon produce a new code of practice ­following the recommendations of Lord ­Bonomy’s post-corroboration safeguards review.

A code based on reliable scientific evidence means that we can collect highly-reliable identification evidence nationwide. A national police force means ­consistent practice is achievable, compared, say, to the USA, where each state would require its own code of practice.

Already recognised for high-quality research on face recognition, Scotland’s academics also have a key role. Partnerships already exist between academics and the police through the Scottish Institute for Policing Research. As an experimental forensic psychologist, I am examining factors that affect the ability of eyewitnesses to recognise a guilty person in a line-up or, as importantly, to realise the guilty person is not in the lineup.

Funded by a grant from the American Psychology-Law Society, Queen Margaret University is researching the decision-making processes of people in different types of identification procedures. The study will compare the extent to which an eyewitness’s decision-making varies depending on the quality of their memory of the crime and the way in which line-up members are ­presented.

It will provide unique insights into how identification procedures can be refined, and could lead to even further fine-tuning of policies and practices, resulting in fewer mistakes and greater confidence in our criminal justice system.

Jamal K. Mansour is lecturer in ­Psychology at Queen Margaret ­University, Edinburgh.

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