Many Police Departments Still Lack Eyewitness Identification Standards


Mistakes in eyewitness identifications remain common, says Miller-McCune magazine. Last week, the Los Angeles Police Department exonerated a suspect in the beating of Giants fan Bryan Stow when investigators could not corroborate eyewitness testimony with forensic evidence. “Unfortunately, it's pretty typical, even in this day and age, for police departments to not even have written procedures for conducting eyewitness identifications,” said University of Virginia law Prof. Brandon Garrett, who wrote the book “Convicting the Innocent; Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong.”

Virginia and North Carolina passed laws after high-profile exonerations that standardized eyewitness identification procedures. Attorneys general in other states, such as Wisconsin, and police chiefs in various cities, such as Philadelphia, have enacted what the U.S. Department of Justice and the Innocence Project consider model reforms. Decades of research, led most notably by psychologist Gary Wells, show that the human memory does not recall images like a video camera. Memory is much more malleable and can be strongly influenced by suggestion, no matter how inadvertent, Wells and others have found. “The primary reform is blind administration of lineups,” said Rebecca Brown of the Innocence Project. That's where someone who doesn't know who the subject is conducts the lineup. “A lot of the research speaks to the fact that there are inadvertent cues that take place all the time.”

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