Despite substantial proof that traditional eyewitness identifications are often mistaken, police departments continue to rely on them as primary evidence against suspects.
The Innocence Project reports that nearly 70% of more than 375 wrongful convictions in the U.S. overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence involved mistaken eyewitness identifications.
Common problems with suspect identification practices
Inaccurate eyewitness IDs can poison criminal investigations from the beginning, as critical time is lost when police build a case against an innocent person instead of searching for the real perpetrator. Police procedures using suspect lineups are often flawed because:
- The lineup administrator, who usually knows who the suspect is, provides intentional or unintentional clues about which person to choose
- Even without hints from the administrator, the eyewitness often assumes the perpetrator is in the lineup and chooses a suspect despite doubts
- While conducting a live or photo lineup, administrators often choose non-suspect “fillers” who do not match or resemble the suspect, causing the actual suspect to stand out to the eyewitness
- Administrators often do not record a statement from the eyewitness on their level of certainty when choosing a suspect, particularly when they are influenced by information from police
Improving the accuracy of eyewitness IDs
The Innocence Project endorses a series of reforms to reduce or eliminate cases of mistaken identity. They come from 30 years of research and are recognized by various law enforcement organizations. The reforms include these five steps:
- Double-blind lineups: Neither the eyewitness nor the lineup administrator knows which person is the suspect to avoid any intentional or inadvertent clues from the administrator.
- Instructions: To discourage an eyewitness from feeling obligated to make a selection if they’re unsure, administrators should make a series of statements, such as the suspect may or may not be in the lineup.
- Lineup composition: All individuals chosen for a live or photo lineup should be similar to a suspect’s description, so no one stands out to the eyewitness.
- Confidence statements: Immediately after the lineup, the eyewitness should draft a statement outlining their confidence level in the selection they have made.
- Documentation: The best practice is recording all lineups via video, if possible, with audio or at least a written transcript if a video recording isn’t practical.
Oregon is one of 25 states that has adopted these core reforms. However, in many cases, local police departments still fail to implement some or all of these procedures.