“Sequential” Lineups Favored To Improve IDs


In a few places, the traditional criminal lineup is undergoing a makeover, says the Christian Science Monitor. Defense lawyers and researchers say the current system, which confronts witnesses with several suspects at once, is rigged against the innocent. “Witnesses compare one person to another in the lineup, they decide who looks most like the perpetrator, and then they decide that must be the perpetrator,” says Gary Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor. “That seems like a reasonable thing to do. The problem is if the real perpetrator is not in the lineup, there’s still somebody who looks more like the perpetrator than the others. That somebody is at great risk.” Wells and others want “sequential” lineups, in which witnesses view each person one by one instead of with five others. In a sequential photo lineup, police place each photo in front of a witness, ask if the person committed the crime, then pick up the photo, not allowing the witness to see it again. Says Wells: “The theory is that the victim has to dig deeper to compare each person in the lineup to their memory, not to each other. You end up with a somewhat more conservative procedure.”

Sequential lineups produce 15 percent fewer accurate identifications, say some studies. But incorrect identifications dip by a third. Sequential lineups are routine in Boston and the state of New Jersey, and Illinois is testing the system in three jurisdictions. Elsewhere, traditional lineups – typically consisting of photos, not real people lined up behind glass – remain. Many prosecutors oppose the reforms, which they say give a free pass to criminals. If sequential lineups become routine, “it will be much more difficult for the [witness] to offer any identification,” says Joshua Marquis, district attorney in Astoria, Or. “What we’re trying to do is find the truth. We ought to make it easier, not make it more difficult.”

Link: http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/1208/p11s01-usju.html

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