Criminal Lineups Get a Makeover
Randy Dotinga Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
Defense attorneys have doubted eyewitness testimony throughout the annals of crime, and often with good reason: People don't always accurately recall what they see, even when the stakes are huge.
Consider the playgoers who sat helplessly as Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865. Some swore the assassin they watched escape across the stage couldn't possibly have been a man they knew well - acclaimed actor John Wilkes Booth.
Despite eternal questions about the reliability of memory, criminal lineups remain a mainstay of American justice: Witnesses peer at a handful of potential suspects - sometimes in photographs, sometimes in person - and try to pick out the culprit.
But in a small but growing number of jurisdictions, the traditional lineup is undergoing a makeover. Armed with academic studies, defense lawyers and university researchers say the current system, which confronts witnesses with several potential suspects at once, is rigged against the innocent.
"Witnesses compare one person to another in the lineup, they decide who looks most like the perpetrator, and then they decide that must be the perpetrator," says Gary Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor and a leading reform advocate. "That seems like a reasonable thing to do. The problem is if the real perpetrator is not in the lineup, there's still somebody who looks more like the perpetrator than the others. That somebody is at great risk."
Professor Wells and others support so-called "sequential" lineups, in which witnesses view each person one by one instead of with five others. In a sequential photo lineup, police officers place each photo in front of a witness, ask if the person committed the crime, then pick up the photo, not allowing the witness to see it again.
The witness "can't compare one to another," Wells says. "The theory is that the victim has to dig deeper to compare each person in the lineup to their memory, not to each other. You end up with a somewhat more conservative procedure."
There's a downside. Wells acknowledges that sequential lineups produce 15 percent fewer accurate identifications, according to some studies.
But the important point is that incorrect identifications dip by a third, Wells says.
The validity of lineups is hardly a trivial question, even in these days of high-tech sleuthing.
"Much has been made of DNA and trace evidence and fiber evidence, and the TV programs like 'CSI' have really built up the expectation of it being available in every case. But it's not available in the majority," says Paul Logli, state's attorney for Winnebago County in Illinois. Eyewitness testimony is vital, he adds, "and it's important that there be accuracy."
Sequential lineups are now routine in Boston and the entire state of New Jersey, and the state of Illinois is testing the system in three jurisdictions. Elsewhere, traditional lineups - typically consisting of photos, not real people lined up behind glass - remain in place. …