Psychologists have done a great deal to help to ensure that innocent people are not imprisoned or put to death, but there is much more that they can do, according to Barry C. Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project and keynote speaker at the opening session.
Scheck, whose organization works to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system, called on psychologists at the convention to step forward to become expert witnesses; to conduct more research on the effect of jury instructions; and to field test various techniques used in police lineups.
“Now for those of you doing social psychology, the frame of the innocence movement … is of course to protect the innocent from wrongful conviction, but also to enhance the capability of law enforcement to find and convict the people that really committed the crime with scientifically reliable evidence,” he said.
Scheck said the leading cause of the conviction of innocent people is faulty eyewitness identification. He cited numerous cases where eyewitnesses pointed the finger at the wrong person, often because of leading statements by police or the type of lineup used.
Citing what he called “30 years of first-rate social science research on eyewitness misidentification,” Scheck ticked off some of the reforms his organization is recommending. They include lineups conducted by a “blind” administrator – that is, someone who doesn’t know who the suspect is; lineup instructions that include being told the perpetrator might not be in the lineup; videotape recording of investigation procedures wherever possible; and confidence statements in which the witness writes a statement immediately after viewing the lineup indicating his/her level of confidence in the identification.
“Our mission is to free the wrongly convicted people and reform the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment anywhere in the world,” he said.