Eyewitness Identification Reform in Massachusetts

27 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2007


This article examines the impact of new scientific learning upon police eyewitness identification procedures in Massachusetts. Much has been written about the case for procedural reform, but little about how it can be accomplished in states with fragmented systems of local policing. We know even less about how reforms, once adopted, are implemented. This article explores both the factors leading to reform of eyewitness identification procedures in Massachusetts, and their implementation.

Between 1997 and 2004, local media publicized a number of prisoner exonerations in Massachusetts, many of which resulted from mistaken eyewitness identification. As a result, legislative bills were filed to require identification reforms, and pressures arose to establish a state "innocence commission" armed with subpoena power. In response, a number of district attorneys held trainings in reform procedures for police departments in their counties. This article examines obstacles to the spread of reform practices statewide, including: 1) the decentralized system of law enforcement, which allows each police department discretion to choose its methods of criminal investigation; and 2) the failure of police training authorities to enforce statewide training according to a uniform curriculum. Finally, the article describes a pilot study to learn how police in two "reform" counties have implemented reforms in photo array procedures. A review of 197 public defender felony case files revealed 53 in which police conducted and documented eyewitness identification procedures. The study suggests that 1) patterns of compliance and non-compliance exist; 2) most police failed to obtain statements of witness confidence in both photo arrays and field show-ups; 3) in one county, a problematic pattern might exist of conducting non-blind photo-arrays sequentially. In conclusion, the article proposes steps to expand adoption and improve implementation of reform procedures.

Keywords: police training, eyewitness identification, law reform, criminal investigation, wrongful convictions, misidentification

JEL Classification: K14

Suggested Citation

Fisher, Stanley Z., Eyewitness Identification Reform in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Law Review, 2007, Boston Univ. School of Law Working Paper No. 07-07, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=978477

Stanley Z. Fisher (Contact Author)

Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States
(617) 353-3124 (Phone)

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