Study Shows New Problems With Police Line-ups

We have grown accustomed to seeing police line-ups on TV and in movies. The victim or a witness looks at a series of suspects, often ones who look similar to each other, either live or in pictures, and tries to identify the individual that he or she saw at the crime scene. Identifying a suspect in a lineup can be persuasive to a prosecutor in deciding whether to press charges, and certainly, highly persuasive to a criminal jury.  However, line-ups are not always reliable.

Lineups Can Be Inaccurate

Line-ups have been the subject of much criticism. In many cases, those who witness or are victims of crimes have endured stressful situations in which their powers of observation may be compromised. Many crimes may occur at night, when visibility is poor.

In many cases, studies have shown that witnesses’ biases or life experiences can creep into their decision-making processes. In one case, a witness identified a suspect, but it was later revealed that it was because she was simply familiar with his face, as she had seen the man in her neighborhood earlier.

In many cases, a suspect’s clothing or physical features may be markedly different than others in a lineup, making the suspect “stand out,” leading a witness to falsely identify him or her.

The Innocence Project recently revealed that in all of the cases overturned as a result of DNA evidence, 70% of them involved a suspect who was falsely identified by a witness.

Study Shows More Problems

A new study published in the Journal of Memory and Cognition reveals how something else can pollute the witness ID process: subtle comments, or language used by the police. The study is thought to be the first of its kind about how questions the police ask when presenting the lineup affect the witness.

In the study, the researchers showed a witness videos of people doing everyday tasks. Then, they asked the witness to pick the people they had seen in the video out of a lineup. They asked the witness “is this the person who did it?”

The study revealed that with younger witnesses, when the question was posed that way, the likelihood of misidentification was higher. Researchers believe that when the question comes from an authority figure such as a police detective or investigator, the mind tends to believe that figure.

When a witness’s mind is full of faces it has seen throughout the day, but is not sure where those memories come from, a leading question from an authority figure leads the witness to make an assumption that the conclusion suggested in the leading question is correct.

Researchers suggest that questioners use open ended questions that do not suggest answers, and that do not give too many details that the witness would not otherwise remember. Because irregularities in the witness ID process can be challenged in court by asking a judge to exclude them, those accused of a crime need to be certain that the ID process is conducted fairly.

Make sure you are treated fairly at all stages of the criminal justice process. Contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case if you are charged with a crime or arrested.