It has been heavily documented that eyewitness misidentification is the single largest contributing cause of wrongful conviction. The reasons for this are many, and range from the vagaries of how the human brain works, to the procedures used by law enforcement for establishing an eyewitness identification. In court, an eyewitness identification will even trump a rock solid alibi, so it’s important to do everything possible to ensure the integrity of eyewitness identifications. There’s not a lot we can do about the vagaries of the human brain, except try to understand how they impact a person’s memory and perception. But there are lots of things we can do about how police go about establishing an eyewitness ID. Federal guidelines have been issued, and a number of states have taken steps to improve the process, including mandating the use of “blind” administration of lineups. It seems, however, that what’s being done in practice is lagging far behind what’s being recommended or required. A recent article by Kevin Johnson in USA TODAY brings this point home:
WASHINGTON — More than four out of five police agencies in the U.S. have no written policies for handling eyewitness identifications despite long-standing federal guidelines, according to a report obtained by USA TODAY.
The findings in the National Institute of Justice report, come as flaws in eyewitness identification represent the single greatest cause of wrongful conviction, contributing to 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing, according to the Innocence Project, which uses DNA testing to challenge criminal convictions.
The report, which was produced for the Justice Department’s research arm by the Police Executive Research Forum, is the first national assessment of eyewitness identification standards. In it, 84% of police agencies reported that they had no written policy for conducting live suspect lineups, and slightly more than 64% said they had no formal standard for administering photo displays of potential suspects.
Read the full story by Kevin Johnson of USA TODAY here.