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Eyewitness Error

A Sample Case

NCIP exoneree Maurice Caldwell was misidentified by an eyewitness who was influenced by law enforcement during questioning after the crime and spent 20 years in prison, wrongfully convicted.

In 1991 Mr. Caldwell was wrongfully convicted of second-degree murder for a shooting that occurred in his neighborhood. A witness of the shooting who lived next door to Mr. Caldwell first told police that no one from her neighborhood had committed the crime. Police later took Mr. Caldwell to the witness’s apartment where she saw him as a potential suspect. She later identified Mr. Caldwell in a photo lineup, saying that he was the shooter she saw under the lamppost. Police had no physical evidence linking Mr. Caldwell to the crime, but did have witness statements confirming his innocence. Mr. Caldwell was convicted based solely on the faulty testimony of his next door neighbor, who could not have seen from her window the features of the shooter under the lamppost.

Policy Reform

NCIP supports statewide implementation of evidence-based eyewitness identification practices in California. We hold symposia and trainings on eyewitness identification and partner with law enforcement and other criminal justice organizations to educate and inform about the benefits of evidence-based eyewitness identification practices.

In 2014 the National Academy of Sciences published a report summarizing the research on eyewitness identification and recommending practices that studies show improve accuracy. The report acknowledges efforts by law enforcement to implement evidence-based practices, but also emphasizes that these efforts have not been uniform or adequate.
Evidence-based eyewitness identification practices include:

  • Blind administration—The officer conducting the line-up does not know who the suspects are.
  • Witness instructions—The witness is told that the perpetrator may not be in the line-up at all.
  • Confidence statements—The witness’s level of confidence in the identification is documented.
  • Good fillers—The other people in the line-up have similar characteristics as the suspect.
  • Recording the identification process—A recording of the identification can verify practices used.

In 2018, NCIP co-sponsored successful California Senate Bill 923 which mandates law enforcement’s use of eyewitness identification evidence-based practices (CA Penal Code Section 859.7). As of 2020, all police departments in the state are required to comply with, at a minimum, these requirements.