To cut false convictions, let eyewitnesses rest

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People who sleep between witnessing a crime and looking at suspects in a police lineup are much less likely to wrongly pick an innocent person—at least when the real perpetrator isn’t there.

Some 70 percent of wrongful convictions in the United States are related to false eyewitness accounts.

“It’s concerning that more people aren’t making the correct decision during lineups; this suggests our memories are not super accurate and that’s a problem when you’re dealing with the consequences of the criminal justice system,” says Michelle Stepan, a doctoral student in psychology at Michigan State University and lead author of the study in PLOS ONE.

“Putting someone in jail is a big decision based on somebody’s memory of a crime.”

“Sleep may not help you get the right guy, but it may help you keep an innocent individual out of jail.”

Stepan and Kimberly Fenn, associate professor of psychology and director of the Sleep and Learning Lab, conducted an experiment in which about 200 participants watched a video of a crime (a man planting a bomb on a rooftop) and then, 12 hours later, viewed one of two computer lineups of six similar-looking people. One lineup included the perpetrator; the other lineup did not.

Some participants watched the crime video in the morning and viewed a lineup that night, with no sleep in between. Others watched the crime video at night and viewed a lineup the next morning, after sleeping.

When the perpetrator was not in the lineup, participants who had not slept identified an innocent person 66 percent of the time, compared to 42 percent for participants who had slept.

“This is the most interesting finding of the study—that individuals are less likely to choose an innocent suspect after a period of sleep when the perpetrator is absent from the lineup,” Fenn says. That’s relevant, she says, because false convictions too often stem from an incorrect eyewitness identification of a suspect who didn’t commit a crime.

Lack of sleep can lead to false confessions

When the perpetrator was in the lineup, there was essentially no difference between the sleep and no-sleep groups’ ability to choose the guilty man. Both groups correctly identified the perpetrator about 50 percent of the time.

In other words,” Fenn says, “sleep may not help you get the right guy, but it may help you keep an innocent individual out of jail.”

The researchers say the findings could reflect both changes in memory strength and decision-making strategies after sleep.

Participants who slept were more likely to use an “absolute strategy,” in which they compare each person in the lineup to their memory of the suspect, while participants who didn’t sleep were more likely to use a “relative strategy,” in which they compare the people in the lineup to each other to determine who most resembles the perpetrator relative to the others.

Using a relative strategy is believed to increase false identifications relative to an absolute strategy in perpetrator-absent lineups, Stepan says.

“These findings tell us that sleep likely impacts memory processes but that it might also impact how people search through a lineup, and those search strategies might be a critical factor when the perpetrator is not in the lineup.”

Source: Michigan State University