Battle Rages Over Best Police Lineup Technique

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In traditional police lineups, suspects stand side by side under harsh lights while a witness looks at them through a one-way mirror. The traditional lineup has been under attack, says the Chicago Tribune, as social scientists concluded that showing suspects one at a time — in person or in photos — would result in more accurate identifications.

Last year, a study of an Illinois pilot program stunned academic, law-enforcement, and legal experts when it found just the opposite — that lineups in which witnesses viewed one suspect at time actually caused more false identifications.

A new report by a panel of social scientists has panned the Illinois study as critically flawed in design and impossible to interpret. A paper published online this month in an American Psychological Association journal calls for more studies. At issue is what may be is a critical flaw in the criminal justice system. As many as three-fourths of inmates who have been cleared of wrongdoing through DNA tests had been convicted in part because of faulty identifications by witnesses.

Chief among the complaints about the Illinois study was that too many variables were tested at the same time. Comparing group and individual lineups, while at the same time using some administrators who knew suspects and some who didn’t, was like comparing “apples to dolphins,” said James Doyle of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice’s Center for Modern Forensic Practice, which coordinated the panel review.

“Just putting the two of them together doesn’t make it a scientific review. You’ve changed two variables at once. You can’t do that.” The author of the original report, Sheri Mecklenburg, an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago, and two prosecutors from New York City and Seattle dispute the new report in a response that will also be published.


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