Rethinking Lineups

By Nelson, Leah | In These Times, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Lineups


Nelson, Leah, In These Times


IN THE MID-'90s, inspired by a spate of DNA exonerations, academics began to study whether eyewitness identifications using traditional police lineups were less reliable than previously believed and found that a different lineup protocol appeared to be more dependable.

So Sheri Mecklenburg, general counsel to the Chicago Police Department, and Ebbe Ebbesen, a psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego, decided to test it. Their one year field study, conducted in three different-sized Illinois cities-Chicago, Evanston and Joliet-was Mecklenburg's idea. As counsel to the police department, she says, "I want them to do the best job they can, and they want to do the best job they can. I'm not against any improvement."

However, the Illinois results appear to prove that the old method produces more correct identifications than the new. Mecklenburg and Ebbesen went straight to the press-but withheld their methodology, usually a point of pride for any academic inquiry.

The research Mecklenburg and Ebbesen tested had been done by Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University, who began studying eyewitness reliability more than 30 years ago and has published more than 100 studies. His laboratory studies found that a new lineup method called "sequential double-blind," in which witnesses are shown suspects one by one by an administrator who does not know who the "real" suspect is, is more reliable than the traditional "simultaneous, non-blind" protocol, in which the lead detective shows eyewitnesses a row of people with one true suspect.

Wells was not consulted for the Illinois study and expresses concern about its results. In laboratory studies involving multiple variables, every variation is tested separately so that the researcher can be sure which variable causes which result. "The whole idea behind using double-blind procedures, whether it's simultaneous or sequential, is that [in the old protocol] a non-blind administrator is influencing the test," Wells says.

When the results of the field test were published, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) and the MacArthur Justice Center asked Mecklenberg and Ebbesen to disclose their methodology. After failing to get responses after nearly a year, both groups filed Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests on Feb. 8, demanding documentation of the field tests methodology.

"Because they are refusing to share their statistics, it makes you think there is something they don't want to show," says Martin Finales, president of the NACDL.

According to Locke Bowman, author of the FOIA request, Mecklenburg says she is withholding trial results due to concerns about privacy, but he believes easy steps could be taken to maintain confidentiality. …

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