Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Why Do Police Continue Bad Identification Procedures?

The cases last week of Thomas Doswell and Luis Diaz, who were both exonerated by DNA evidence, brought to light once again the problems with eyewitness identification. Approximately 75% of all the Innocence Project DNA exonerations have involved mistaken eyewitness identification. The major problem with eyewitness identification evidence is that it is far more powerful to a jury than it is reliable in reality. That makes for bad justice. Of course, you can't simply throw out eyewitness identification altogether. When it is correct, it is good, strong direct evidence. But, both the Diaz and Doswell cases illustrate that a good eyewitness can produce a bad identification when the police use bad identification procedures. And yet, years after the Justice Department recommended changes in eyewitness identification procedures, the vast majority of police departments around the country still use outmoded procedures. Why? I can't understand it. The research shows that using the new procedures drastically reduces the number of incorrect identifications while causing only a slight dimunition of correct identifications (which dimunition is partially attributable to a lessening of "good guesses" by the witness). The recommended procedure involves the following elements:

*blind administration - the officer who shows the witness the "line-up" should not know who the suspect is

*witness information - prior to viewing the line-up, the witness should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the line-up

*proper fillers - the fillers--the individuals included in the line-up other than the suspect--should be selected based on their similarity to the original description given by the witness rather than their similarity to the suspect

*sequential procedure - witnesses should be shown each subject sequentially rather than all at the same time

Extensive research has shown that using these procedures drastically reduces the incidence of incorrect identification. When these procedures are used, the eyewitness evidence becomes even more powerful in a courtroom. So, why aren't police departments across the country changing their procedures? Is it just because they're stubborn?


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