A split-second, one-person identification cost a Dallas man 22 years of his life on a rape conviction that DNA evidence later invalidated. It has been almost a decade since the U.S. Justice Department urged stricter limits on “showups,” as the practice is known in police circles. More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed them dangerously suggestive and discouraged their use. Yet showups have been cited as a critical flaw in at least 20 percent of the 220 U.S. DNA exonerations. In each case, the suspect was brought before the victim under police escort. Showups are known as “drive-by” identifications because witnesses are driven in a squad car past the suspect. They occur anywhere police choose: hospital rooms, police station hallways, courtrooms. They can be done by showing a single photo. The idea is to identify a suspect while a witness’s memory is fresh and before the perpetrator can flee.
The danger is that in the immediate aftermath of a crime, police may stop someone on little more than a hunch, and witnesses may be too eager to please. Showups continue because police value them, judges seldom suppress them, and juries are swayed by the results. The Morning News reviewed more than 20 years of state appellate court opinions. The News found more than 100 felony trial convictions involving showups. Trials represent just a fraction of how charges are disposed; many result in plea agreements. How often showups result in misidentifications remains a matter of scholarly debate. It is a given that one-person showups can pose a higher risk of error than the standard six-person photo array or live lineup.