Recognizing the importance of eyewitness identifications in courts of law and motivated by data showing that at least one erroneous eyewitness identification was associated with almost 75 percent of cases where defendants were later exonerated by DNA evidence, in 2013 the Laura and John Arnold Foundation asked the National Academy of Sciences to undertake an assessment of the scientific research on eyewitness identification and offer recommendations to improve eyewitness performance. In response to this request, the National Research Council (NRC) appointed an ad hoc committee to assess research in the social and behavior sciences and research on vision, memory, and cognition; identify gaps in the existing body of literature; and suggest other research questions to be pursued that would further our understanding of eyewitness identification and that might offer additional insight into law enforcement and courtroom practice. That committee issued its report, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, in 2014.
The report provided findings and recommendations for
- identifying and facilitating best practices in eyewitness procedures for the law enforcement community,
- strengthening the value of eyewitness identification evidence in court, and
- improving the scientific foundation underpinning eyewitness identification.1
The Arnold Foundation took particular note of Recommendation 11 of the report. That recommendation called for additional research on system2 and estimator3 variables. Specifically, the 2014 report recommended
1National Research Council. 2014. Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, p. 2.
2System variables are characteristics of procedures and practices (e.g., lineup configurations or the content and nature of instructions provided to an eyewitness when asked to make an identification) that can be controlled by the criminal justice system. See National Research Council, p. 16.
broad use of statistical tools that can render a discriminability measure to evaluate eyewitness performance… and a rigorous exploration of methods that can lead to more conservation responding (such as witness instructions) but [that] do not compromise discriminability.4
As a result of its assessment of the scientific literature related to eyewitness identification, the committee that authored the 2014 report concluded that it could not “draw definitive conclusions about which lineup procedure (sequential or simultaneous) is preferable.”5 That committee further observed that “the identification of factors (such as specific lineup procedures or states of other system variables) that can objectively improve eyewitness identification performance must be among the top priorities for this field.”6
The 2014 report called for researchers engaged in research on eyewitness identification to work more closely with the law enforcement community to identify additional variables that might influence eyewitness performance in order to understand more fully practical issues associated with strategies aimed at influencing eyewitness performance.
CHARGE TO THE COMMITTEE
In order to stimulate new and innovative research on statistical tools and the interrelationships between system and estimator variables, the Arnold Foundation in 2015 again called upon the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. It requested that the National Academies assist the foundation in (1) developing a request for proposals for additional research on eyewitness identification and (2) assessing the scientific merit and research design of submitted proposals.
To carry out this new project, the National Academies appointed an ad hoc committee comprised of some members of the committee that authored the 2014 report on eyewitness identification and additional members with statistical expertise. This committee held two meetings and participated in numerous conference calls. At its first meeting,7 the committee heard from several experts who discussed the dominant approaches for assessing eyewitness performance and considered statistical approaches relevant to eyewitness identification research.
3 Estimator variables are characteristics of the conditions under which an eyewitness event occurs (e.g., the visibility conditions at the time of the event, whether or not a weapon is present, the race of the culprit versus that of the eyewitness, etc.) that are beyond the control of the criminal justice system. See National Research Council, p. 17.
4 National Research Council, pp. 117-118.
5 National Research Council, p. 118.
At that meeting, a representative from the foundation gave the committee the following charge:
- Develop text for a Request for Proposals (RFP) that addresses Recommendation 11 of the 2014 NRC report, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, that called for additional research on system and estimator variables in eyewitness performance. Develop criteria to be used in evaluating the scientific merit and research design of proposals submitted to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to further advance understanding of statistical tools appropriate for validating the reliability of eyewitness performance.
- Upon receipt of all proposals from the Arnold Foundation, meet to evaluate the proposals based upon scientific merit and research design.
Prior to their appointment to the committee, prospective members submitted a conflict-of-interest and bias statement and were screened for potential financial conflicts of interest. At the committee’s first meeting in September 2015, the Executive Office of Policy and Global Affairs of the National Academies held a bias and conflict-of-interest discussion with the committee in order to identify conflicts of interest and establish that the committee was intellectually balanced. The issue of potential or perceived conflict of interest or bias was again examined when the initial set of proposals was received, and the PGA Executive Office determined that no conflicts of interest existed for the committee members in relation to the researchers who had submitted proposals in response to the RFP from the Arnold Foundation.
Per the agreement with the Arnold Foundation, this report describes, in the following chapter, the development of the request for proposals, the processes followed by the committee as it evaluated the proposals, and the committee’s general assessment of the scientific merit and research design of the proposals overall. It does not provide evaluations of individual proposals or the names of applicants. This information has been provided to the foundation for internal use.
It should be noted that the foundation will make the ultimate decision regarding which, if any, proposals to fund after it has the opportunity to consider the committee’s assessments of the scientific merit and research design of each proposal and to consider other relevant criteria that the foundation may deem are applicable to the goals and mission of the foundation.
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