An article on the front page of today’s New York Times examines changes underway nationwide to eyewitness identification procedures as states aim to improve the quality of identifications. Last week New Jersey’s highest court ruled that courts and juries in the state must expand the way they assess accounts of eyewitness identification from police lineups, and other states are expected to follow suit.
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. Despite proven misidentifications and shortcomings in the lineup system, New Jersey and North Carolina are the only two states to mandate blind administration for lineups and that photo arrays be presented sequentially.
Bigger police departments like Dallas, Texas and Denver, Colorado have already made changes to the way detectives conduct lineups and show photo arrays, but other municipalities are resistant to overhaul a system that has been in place for so long. Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia whose book, “Convicting the Innocent,” was cited by the New Jersey Supreme Court justices in their ruling, said resistance to changing the witness identification process has not been limited to police officers. Judges and district attorneys have been slow to recognize the shortcomings of the current procedures.
Now, more than a decade after the National Institute of Justice sent guidelines for changing lineup procedures to every department in the United States, the Police Executive Research Forum is conducting a survey of lineup practices in more than 1,400 randomly selected police departments around the country.
Yet even in departments that have enacted changes, police officers sometimes fail to comply with the new procedures. Stanley Z. Fisher, a law professor at Boston University, did a pilot study on compliance with changes in two jurisdictions in Massachusetts. He found that in Middlesex County, for example, where police officers are urged but not required to conduct blinded lineups, they recorded doing so in only 2 of 11 photo arrays.
Despite solid proof of the inaccuracy of traditional methods – and the availability of simple measures to reform them – eyewitness misidentification remains the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.
Read the Times’ summary of
five key reforms to eyewitness identification procedures
Innocence Project press release
on last week’s New Jersey Supreme Court decision.