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Law professor named to Mass. SJC eyewitness committee

Northeastern University law professor Daniel Medwed, an expert in criminal law and a renowned scholar on the topic of wrongful convictions, has been appointed a member of a new Standing Committee on Eyewitness Identification by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

The committee will offer guidance to the courts regarding eyewitness identification procedures. Members will meet periodically to assess evolving science and law of eyewitness identification, make recommendations when appropriate, and design educational seminars and training sessions that address new eyewitness evidence procedures and protocols.

“I’m thrilled about this appointment and honored to be a member of this committee,” said Medwed, who will serve a one-year term. “One of the hallmarks of our School of Law is blending theory with practice. Much of my work is related to law reform scholarship that involves identifying problems, prescribing solutions, and trying to implement those solutions. This is right up the School of Law’s alley—testing our theories and research in the real world.”

The 12-member committee consists of state and municipal judges, attorneys, law enforcement officials, and law professors. Also among its members are two Northeastern alumni: the committee’s chair, Marlborough District Court First Justice Michael L. Fabbri, L’83, whose three-decades-long career includes an appointment to the Framingham District Court and serving as a prosecutor for more than 25 years in the Middlesex County District Attorney’s office in several different positions; and Boston Municipal Court Justice Jonathan Tynes, L’97, who has also worked as an assistant district attorney in the Suffolk Country District Attorney’s office and in law department of the city of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The committee was formed at the recommendation of the state’s highest court’s study group on eyewitness identification, which was formed in 2011 to “consider the most effective ways to deter unnecessarily suggestive procedures and to determine whether existing model jury instructions provide adequate guidance to juries in evaluating eyewitness testimony.”

“Professor Medwed is both an outstanding scholar and experienced litigator,” said Jeremy Paul, dean of the School of Law. “I have no doubt that the commonwealth and this committee will greatly benefit from his nuanced approach to ensuring that eyewitness procedures reflect the highest standards.”

Medwed’s work in examining wrongful convictions focuses specifically on why innocent people are convicted and often serve lengthy sentences. He said the research suggests that misidentification is the No. 1 cause of wrongful convictions, and that law enforcement and judicial reforms can increase accuracy. He noted there are numerous factors involved in good faith but inaccurate eyewitness identification, one being people’s ability to remember and assess a crime after it’s happened.

“Our memories are often not as accurate as we’d like to think, and they’re often quite malleable,” Medwed said. “They change over time when we have access to subsequent information.” Other factors, he said, may include the difficulty in recalling crimes that happen under stressful circumstances, how witnesses are questioned, and the methods with which witnesses identify suspects.

In his 2012 book, Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent, Medwed explored how cognitive biases and an overly deferential regime of legal and ethical rules can drive well-meaning prosecutors to make decisions that contribute to wrongful convictions.

In 2013, Medwed received one of Northeastern’s most prestigious prizes, the Robert D. Klein University Lectureship, which is awarded annually to a faculty member who has obtained distinction in his or her field of study. He is also a founding member of the board of directors of the Innocence Network, a consortium of innocence projects across the world, and is a former president of the board of directors of the Rocky Mountain Innocence Center in Salt Lake City. He also serves on the boards of directors of the New England Innocence Project and Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts.

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