Eyewitness ID Reform

The most common element in all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence has been eyewitness misidentification. Misleading lineup methods have been used for decades without serious scrutiny. Now is the time for change.

Despite solid proof of the inaccuracy of traditional methods – and the availability of simple measures to reform them – eyewitness IDs remain among the most common and compelling evidence brought against criminal defendants.

Misidentifications don’t only threaten the innocent, they also derail investigations. While police focus on finding evidence against an innocent person, the perpetrator can get away.

How the wrong person gets picked

Most law enforcement agencies use the same methods they have used for decades – live and photo lineups, usually conducted without a blind administrator or proper instructions. It is stressful for victims and eyewitnesses to identify a perpetrator, and they make mistakes.

Sometimes these mistakes are triggered by a gap in memory or the desire to make an identification at all costs. In other cases, subtle cues by police – intentional or not – lead to a false identification. Almost all of these mistakes are preventable.

Time for reform

Several easy-to-implement procedures have been proven to significantly decrease the number of misidentifications. However, acceptance of these changes has been slow. The Innocence Project recommends that all jurisdictions immediately adopt the following policies:

  • 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’ description of the perpetrator. The suspect should not stand out (for example, he should not be the only member of his race in the lineup, or the only one with facial hair). Eyewitnesses should not view multiple lineups with the same suspect.
  • 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 the lineup result. They should also be told not to look to the administrator for guidance.
  • Confidence statements: Immediately following the lineup procedure, the eyewitness should provide a statement, in his own words, articulating his the level of confidence in the identification.
  • Recording: Identification procedures should be videotaped whenever possible – this protects innocent suspects from any misconduct by the lineup administrator, and it helps the prosecution by showing a jury that the procedure was legitimate.

Jurisdictions should also consider adopting sequential presentation of lineups: 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 sequenatial presentations.

Reforms at work

Changes recommended by National Institute of Justice, the Innocence Project and others have proven to be successful. New Jersey, North Carolina, Wisconsin and several large cities have implemented new procedures and improved the quality of their identifications. Following are examples of reforms that several jurisdictions have made:

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