Fixing the System: Eyewitness Identification

Fixing the System: Eyewitness Identification

Eyewitness Testimony informational page

Police lineupInjustice Anywhere supports the recommendations put forth by the Innocence Project to strengthen the accuracy of lineup identification.

  • Blind administration: Research and experience have shown that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is.
  • Lineup composition: “Fillers” (the non-suspects included in a lineup) should resemble the eyewitness’s description of the perpetrator and the suspect should not stand out. Also, a lineup should not contain more than one suspect.
  • Witness instructions: The person viewing a lineup should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether an identification is made.
  • Confidence statements: At the time of the identification, the eyewitness should provide a statement in her own words indicating her level of confidence in the identification.
  • Recording: Identification procedures should be videotaped.
  • Sequential presentation (optional): Lineup members are presented one-by-one (by a “blind” administrator) instead of side by side. Sequential photo arrays should also be used. Witnesses view a number of photos one at a time, rather than simultaneous photo arrays.

Taking a closer look at each recommendation

Blind administration

Blind administration should be used every single time a witness is asked to view a lineup. The police officer administering the lineup should not know who the suspect is. This eliminates the possibility for the officer to influence the witness with clues, whether it be consciously or unconsciously. The witness should be told that the police officer does not know the suspect.

Lineup composition

Fillers are essential in administering a fair lineup. The suspect must not stand out in the group. If this simple procedure is not followed, the lineup identification process becomes completely unreliable. The Eyewitness Identification Research Laboratory At the University of Texas at El Paso has an excellent presentation describing the importance using the correct “fillers” in a lineup.

Lineups and evaluation

As you can see from the lineups shown in the link above, poor fillers can quickly lead to bias which in turn leads to misidentification.

Witness Instructions

It is crucial that the witness receives proper instructions before viewing a lineup. Many witnesses feel a great deal of pressure to help the authorities when they are called on to pick a suspect from a lineup.

Witnesses need to be told that the investigation does not hinge on their ability to pick a suspect. The witness should also be told that the suspect may not even be present in the lineup. When a witness is given these simple instructions, they tend to feel more comfortable admitting when they have doubts or if they simply don’t know if they can make a positive identification.

Confidence Statements

The witness should give a confidence statement when the viewing has been completed. This will allow the witness to inform the police if they are not really sure about their choice. It is a good safeguard to prevent false identification. Witnesses often feel like they have failed if they are unable to make a decision. This often leads the witness to pick someone, even if they have doubts, just so they do not look bad. The confidence statement gives the witness a chance to explain his or her decision.

Videotaping

Witness identification procedures, whether they be photographic or lineup, should be recorded. This will give the court the opportunity to see that the procedures were followed properly. Much like confidence statements, recording is an excellent safeguard to ensure accurate information.

Sequential Presentation

According to the Innocence Project, research has shown that presenting lineup members one-by-one (sequential), rather than all at once (simultaneous), decreases the rate at which innocent people are identified. Research has also demonstrated that when viewing several subjects at once, witnesses tend to choose the person who looks the most like – but may not actually be – the perpetrator. Click here for a more thorough discussion of why the Innocence Project separately supports sequential presentations.

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