UVA Law to Share in $1.4 Million Grant to Improve Eyewitness IDs

Law School Collaborating With Departments of Statistics, Psychology
Brandon Garrett

Professor Brandon Garrett, author of the book "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong," and fellow UVA professors are taking the next step in solving the problem of inaccurate eyewitness identifications.

February 10, 2017

The University of Virginia School of Law will share in a $1.4 million grant that may help end the problem of mistaken eyewitness identifications that lead to false convictions.

UVA Law professor Brandon Garrett is among three principal investigators on Grounds, along with a Utah professor, endowed by the new Laura and John Arnold Foundation grant.

Inaccurate eyewitness identifications are a leading cause of wrongful convictions, as criminal law expert Garrett has reported in his book "Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong."

"Unfortunately, while scientists have researched eyewitness memory for decades now and uncovered a range of reasons why eyewitnesses can get it wrong, eyewitness evidence still often goes unregulated in the courtroom, and police should have better tools to get it right," he said.

To that end, a 2014 National Academy of Sciences report that Garrett helped author, Identifying the Culprit: Assessing Eyewitness Identification, "sounded a clarion call" for new types of interdisciplinary scientific research to be done.

Garrett, along with grant co-recipients Karen Kafadar, who chairs the UVA Department of Statistics, and Joanne Yaffe, a University of Utah social work professor, served on the academy committee that produced the report. The document summarized the existing body of research on the issue, and made recommendations for moving forward.

For his part of the grant, Garrett will join UVA psychology professor Chad Dodson to study how to best present eyewitness evidence in the courtroom. Law students will assist the research, and other UVA professors will provide input, Garrett said.

Kafadar said assembling a team of highly knowledgeable researchers can lead to best-practice guidelines for police lineups, jury instructions, and the use of expert and eyewitness testimony in courtrooms.

“Because memories can be unreliable, and law enforcement procedures for conducting eyewitness identification are not standardized, we need to find solid, multidisciplinary, research-based ways to reduce the risk and instances of misidentification,” she said.

The research team will consult with law enforcement professionals, judges, lawyers, policymakers and field experts as part of their research, which is expected to take three years to complete.

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