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
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
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
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. …