Friday, February 22, 2008

Cheap and Easy Fixes to Witness Lineups

The Daytona Beach News Journal strikes again with a great editorial on injecting greater reliability into witness identification procedures, specifically live witness lineups:

One of the easiest, and potentially most effective, fixes involves a simple tweak to a basic police tool: the lineup. This practice -- in which police actually line up a row of people, or display a set of photographs and ask a witness to identify one as the criminal -- is subject to flaws, particularly when the officer administering the lineup knows who the suspect is. Even though the officer might not intend to taint witness identification, it happens, through subtle "tells" such as fleeting changes of facial expression.

The solution is to remove that officer from the lineup process, substituting another officer -- one who has never seen the suspect and doesn't know who the ringers are. This procedure, called a "double-blind" lineup, is the best way to ensure that eyewitness IDs are as accurate as possible. In addition, police should take care to ensure that all subjects in a lineup are as physically similar as possible.

These two fixes are simple. They require no new technology and, because they simply substitute one officer for another, little extra police time. Moreover, they're fully supported by irrefutable research. (Research behind a third reform, which would change the way lineups are administered so that a witness considers only one suspect or photograph at a time, shows conflicts and needs further work).

Witness misidentification contributed to roughly 75% of the 213 wrongful convictions nationwide that were later overturned through the use of DNA testing. While the need for reform is great and the fixes not too difficult, it is very unfortunate that there is still a strong push back by law enforcement.

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