The Los Angeles Times published an opinion today by Barry Scheck, co-director, and Karen A. Newirth, litigation fellow, of the Innocence Project, that underscores why L.A. Police Chief Charlie Beck is wrong in opposing adoption of the best practice of blind administration in police lineups.
The misidentification of an innocent person as the perpetrator has contributed in nearly 75 percent of DNA-proven wrongful convictions. Brandon Garrett notes in his book Convicting the Innocent – Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong a less-known, revealing statistic: Among DNA-proven wrongful convictions in which misidentification was a factor, 36 percent of those misidentified were fingered by more than one witness. This supports what scientists have known for more than a century: Not only is eyewitness identification an unreliable form of evidence, but also the process utilized to secure the witness’s identification can influence its accuracy.
An earlier L.A. Times article here described an instance in which an L.A. police detective administering a lineup didn’t accept the witness’s first selection—a non-suspect filler—and instead steered her verbally to the suspect. When even this was not enough to prompt the desired selection, the detective showed the witness a second photo of the suspect. She then selected the suspect. While this was a blatantly biased lineup, an administrator can influence a witness’s selection also through subtle verbal and non-verbal, often unintentional, clues.
New Jersey, North Carolina, Texas, and other jurisdictions have adopted policies to ensure blind administration, which simply requires that the administrator of the lineup does not know which person is the suspect. The procedure costs no more to implement than the older method.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police has endorsed blind administration as a best practice, and a California commission recommended that the state adopt the practice in 2006. Unfortunately, the L.A. County district attorney’s office opposed not only the recommendation but also even a pilot program to test it. Voters should communicate their support of the Chiefs of Police position and disapproval of the L.A. prosecutor’s stand.
Police Chief Beck has argued that detectives who’ve worked on a case have a better opportunity to establish rapport with the witness and thus ascertain if the witness is holding back for any reason. The citizens of Los Angeles should make it clear to Beck that this alleged benefit does not outweigh the risk of intentional or unintentional influencing of the witness.
The damage caused by a mistaken identification includes not only the destruction of the lives of the wrongfully convicted and his or her family, but also the ongoing victimization of others by the true perpetrator. More citizens are correctly recognizing the adoption of best practices in criminal justice procedure as an issue of public safety. Taxpayers bear the expense of the defense of wrongful convictions in the extensive appeals process often pursued in these cases as well as potential compensation to the wrongfully convicted. Whether prompted by human decency, concern for public safety, or by their pocketbooks, Los Angeles citizens should demand that Police Chief Beck embrace the best practice of blind administration in conducting lineups.