Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, and Virginia is no exception. Eyewitness misidentification played a role in 80% of Virginia’s convictions overturned through DNA testing.
Although the state has introduced improved identification procedures, several municipalities have not conformed to the new policies, reported The Virginian-Pilot. Virginia Beach has already made the change and was one of the agencies to assist the state Department of Criminal Justice Services in establishing the reform, the most important being 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.
Virginia officials hoping to eliminate eyewitness misidentifications also want to implement sequential photo arrays of suspects to witnesses. This simply means that the photos are shown sequentially rather than all at once. Research has shown that presenting lineup members one-by-one decreases the rate at which innocent people are identified. When viewing several subjects at once, witnesses tend to choose the person who looks the most like – but may not actually be – the perpetrator.
“Suggestion is unconscious and it’s incredibly powerful,” said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia who helped Virginia write its new policy. “People are really powerful nonverbal communicators.”
In some wrongful convictions, police told witnesses things such as, “Good job, you picked the right guy,” he said.
“That kind of reassurance and confirmation and encouragement had such a powerful effect that these eyewitnesses were sure they had picked the right one, even though they had picked innocent people,” he said.