Sixteen witnesses placed Steve Avery elsewhere on July 29, 1985, when Penny Beerntsen was brutally attacked on a Wisconsin beach, but she identified Avery in a lineup and swore it was him during the trial. Almost two decades later, DNA evidence proved she was wrong. Avery was released from a Wisconsin prison in 2003. His case dramatically highlights flawed police lineup procedures, where well-meaning witnesses, even crime victims themselves, confidently pick the wrong person, reports the Chicago Tribune.
A different way of conducting lineups that could sharply reduce the number of false identifications is being tested in Chicago, Evanston, and Joliet. Suspects in traditional lineups are arranged shoulder to shoulder in the same room, and witnesses use a process of elimination to select someone who looks most like the perpetrator, said Gary Wells, a psychology professor at Iowa State University. Wells and other researchers advocate the “sequential” lineup, where suspects are brought in one at a time so witnesses can examine each individually. Already used in New Jersey and by half a dozen police departments across the country, the sequential lineup is being tested in the three Illinois places. Mistaken identification–which was a factor in more than 75 percent of the 155 DNA exonerations across the country since 1989, according to the Innocence Project–can be cut in half or more with sequential lineups, Wells said.