Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction. Of the 194 DNA exonerations to date, more than 75% have involved a false identification by a witness or victim. One recent field study of procedures that have always been proven to make identifications more accurate has caused controversy, and a civil lawsuit filed in Illinois yesterday aims to set the record straight on recent research in the field.
The MacArthur Justice Center at Northwestern University School of Law filed the lawsuit, which would force the Illinois police departments that conducted a controversial 2006 identification study to reveal their underlying data. The Illinois study claimed that eyewitnesses make more false identifications in “blind sequential” procedures (where witnesses view lineup members – or their photos — one at a time and the administrator doesn’t know which person is the suspect) than in traditional “simultaneous” lineups (where lineup members are all in one room or all on page of photos). The study, which has been widely discredited because its methodology was so flawed that the results are unreliable, contradicts significant scientific findings on the issues in recent years. The authors of the report and the police departments involve have refused to make the data behind the study public, raising even more serious doubts about the methodology and the objectivity of the study.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers joined in the lawsuit. The groups filing the suit allege that the data collection methods used in the Illinois study were severely flawed and that the data should be shared with the public.
“It does not serve the public interest to conceal data that was gathered at the taxpayers’ expense,” NACDL President Martin S. Pinales said, recognizing the gravity of the litigation. “It only creates doubt and suspicion. If the data support the report’s conclusions, then the police and authors of the report should have nothing to hide. But considering that this report contradicts all of the previous social science research on eyewitness identification, we have reason to believe that the information we are seeking will show that the research was deeply flawed and may have resulted in mistaken identifications.”
A previous peer-reviewed scientific
in Hennepin County, Minnesota, proved that eyewitnesses made fewer mistakes in “sequential blind” lineups than traditional “simultaneous” lineups. A quarter-century of strong social science research has also found that the eyewitness identification reforms are effective. Read the Innocence Project’s press release on the Hennepin County study.
MacArthur Justice Center press release on Thursday’s lawsuit
Read the lawsuit filed Thursday
Hennepin County, Minnesota field study
(publish in Cardozo Law Review, April 2006) (PDF)
Understand The Causes: Eyewitness Misidentification
Fact Sheet on Eyewitness Misidentification
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