Augsburg Professor Influences Eyewitness Identification Legislation

Calvin Denson Lehman, contributor

Augsburg psychology professor Nancy Steblay was involved in the development of a Minnesota Senate bill which will regulate eyewitness identification for criminal cases. This bill, S.F. No. 1256, proposes a policy that promotes uniform practices statewide and defines the best procedures for eyewitness identification. The bill has already been approved in the Senate. Now it must be sent to the House of Representatives. For the bill to continue to progress, the House must pass it as well. A similar bill was approved in the House last year, so the bill will likely become law. 

There are four main guidelines established in the proposed bill. First, the person administering a live or photographic lineup can’t know which person in the lineup is the suspect. If that isn’t possible, the administrator has to use a photographic lineup that prevents them from seeing which lineup member is being viewed by the eyewitness. Second, before the procedure, the eyewitness must be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup. Third, nonsuspect “fillers” used in the lineup have to be similar to the eyewitness’ description of the perpetrator. For example, if the perpetrator is African-American, the fillers also should be. Lastly, the witness must provide a statement in their own words to describe how confident they are directly after the identification.

Steblay, psychology professor and researcher, provided scientific justification for the bill to the Senate. Much like she does at Augsburg University, Steblay taught the legislators about the best practices for eyewitness identification, and how standardization of identification decreases erroneous convictions. In this case, Steblay worked alongside Julie Jonas, Legal Director for the Minnesota branch of the Innocence Project. According to Steblay, the success of the bill is largely Jonas’ victory, because it was she who pushed for eyewitness reform. In her words, Steblay “just kind of show[s] up” to talk about the science she is so passionate about. However, Steblay’s role is far from unimportant, as the regulation would not get very far without the evidence to back it up. 

Steblay was quoted in the Star Tribune about the proposed legislation, stating that “The combination of good science and a practice that works makes these very powerful recommendations.”

In addition to being her job, eyewitness research is also Steblay’s passion. Steblay has traveled around the country to teach law enforcement officials and legislators about eyewitness identification. This week, she’s heading to Texas to train judges, attorneys, and law enforcement personnel at the Center for American and International Law. Steblay has been conducting research on the eyewitness identification for over 30 years, about as long as she has been at Augsburg. 

When asked drives her passion for eyewitness research, Steblay described an intense desire for change. “At some point,” she said, “I realized that this science can make a difference.” Through her research, Steblay can expose problems in the legal system and suggest solutions. Her work can change lives, change laws, change systems in ways that will last.