Police should strive to improve eyewitness identification procedures

The police procedural shows "Law and Order: SVU" and "Blue Bloods" are set in New York City. By the end of these shows the right person is usually trundled off to prison. Unfortunately, in the real world, the wrong person sometimes ends up going to prison. A few months ago, the author of a Newsday article observed that the State of New York is third in the nation for the number of convictions overturned by DNA testing. It was noted that while other states are moving forward in implementing eyewitness identification procedures which have been shown to enhance the accuracy of eyewitness evidence, New York lags behind due to resistance from prosecutors.

Eyewitness testimony is an integral part of the criminal justice system and, in many cases-including those involving assaults and violent crimes - it is the most important evidence available. However, according to a PBS Frontline investigation, flawed eyewitness testimony is the number one contributing factor to wrongful convictions which are subsequently overturned by DNA analysis. Whether it is a witness who is reviewing a photo lineup or giving a statement to law enforcement, the way a person happens to recall a face can result in putting innocent people behind bars.

Despite the need for eyewitness testimony to solve crimes, researchers have long studied the correlation between how people create memories and how that works in witness identification. As reported by NBC News, the average person tends to think that the memory works like a videotape recording. In reality, memory does not operate like a taped recording. Memories are constructed and reconstructed in the mind like a collage thereby leading to recollections which are riddled with errors. Moreover, a witness's perception of a crime is often affected by a number of factors such as lighting, distance and stress that witnesses to a crime are understandably subject to.

The NBC report notes that people are often susceptible to influence by intentional or inadvertent suggestions of law enforcement officers as they try to recall the events of a crime. An associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice says that suggestions from law enforcement officers could come in the form of simple nods from an officer or a positive reaction when a witness says that someone in a lineup looks like the perpetrator. Once positive enforcement is provided, people then become completely convinced of the correctness of their memories.

Expert recommendations

The PBS program Frontline observes that the Innocence Project has made recommendations on how police should handle eyewitness evidence to better ensure reliability. Among the suggestions are the following:

  • The composition of the lineup should include people who resemble the suspect rather than make him or her stand out.
  • The person viewing the lineup should be informed that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup results.
  • Immediately following a lineup, the eyewitness should provide a statement in his or her own words setting forth their level of confidence in the identification he or she made.
  • Identification procedures should be taped to protect lineup suspects from any misconduct by the person administering the lineup.

Legal assistance

If you have been accused of a crime, you should contact a New York attorney experienced at handling criminal law cases. An attorney can mount an aggressive defense and will vigorously challenge eyewitnesses whose testimony is inaccurate or shows signs of having been influenced by law enforcement officers.