New Way to Insure Eyewitnesses Can ID The Right Bad Guy
By GINA KOLATA and IVER PETERSON
Prompted by new insights into the psychology of eyewitnesses to
crimes, New Jersey is changing the way it uses witnesses to
new technique called a sequential photo lineup, said John J. Farmer
Jr., New Jersey's attorney general. Sequential viewing of
photographs has been shown to cut down on the number of false
identifications by eyewitnesses without reducing the number of
psychology of witness identification. At present, eyewitnesses
browse through photographs of suspects, comparing, contrasting and
re-studying them at will.
browse. If they wanted a second look, they would have to view all
the photos a second time, in a new sequence. Also, the pictures
would usually be shown by a person who would not know who the real
recall what someone looked like, and they can be more or less
accurate," Mr. Farmer said. "So what we're trying to do with these
guidelines is to give law enforcement a way in which we think we
can at least narrow the risk that a mistake will be made."
is so rare in New Jersey these days that some prosecutors cannot
remember the last time they were used. As in photo lineups, the new
rules require that in showups, individuals must be presented to the
witness one at a time, usually through a one-way mirror.
research and is supported by recommendations published two years
ago by the United States Department of Justice for police forces
which asked police officials, defense lawyers, prosecutors and
researchers to review 28 criminal convictions that had been
overturned by DNA evidence. The study found that in most of the
cases, the strongest evidence had been eyewitness identification.
recommendations for change, saying, among other things, that
sequential lineups were an acceptable option.
drawing up its own guidelines.
of Criminal Justice. Ms. Stone said that the plan elicited howls of
protest when it was introduced to county prosecutors, and local
police departments and prosecutors, who feared that the new
procedures would make it harder to win convictions because fewer
suspects would be identified.
the way people's memories work, and in the end they were very supportive,"
Ms. Stone said.
little harder, you kind of cringe a little. It's going to take
extra time and personnel, but if it's going to make a case a little
more solid or if it's going to eliminate a bad identification or a
situation where an officer may try to influence an identification,
then it's beneficial."
have demonstrated that sequential lineups made a huge difference.
agreed to participate in a study. He would then show the witnesses
a traditional lineup of suspects, like a group of photographs or a
number of people standing in a row, but he would not put the
"purse-snatcher" in the lineup. About 20 percent to 40 percent of
the witnesses mistakenly identified someone as the criminal.
the rate of false identifications dropped to less than 10 percent.
lineups as they were from traditional simultaneous lineups.
compare individuals, choosing one from the group who looks the most
like the person they think they saw commit the crime. But a
sequential lineup limits the ability to compare.
New Jersey, however, plans to let witnesses see photos more than
once, although the sequence would be changed between viewings. And
even if witnesses declare a decision in midsequence, they are
required to view the sequence through to the end, to assure that
each picture has been seen the same number of times.
"Our feeling is that if they request it, we shuffle all eight
photographs again and show them again in random order." A witness
who makes an identification is told to sign and date the chosen
photo, and to initial the other seven. All eight photos become
evidence in the case.
a blind test. If the detective knows which person is the suspect,
it could allow the detective, consciously or not, to guide the
"You show this spread to the witness and the witness says, `Well,
No. 2.' A natural reaction is to say, `Be sure you look at
all the photos.' On the other hand, if the first words to come out
of the witness's mouth are, `No. 3,' then it's, `Tell me
about No 3.'
The studies also showed that witnesses can be just as
identification is correct makes witnesses even more certain.
other didn't?" Professor Lindsay said. "Both are perfectly sincere
in telling you the truth as they know it."
convincing law enforcement officials.
need to be spearheaded by district attorneys, but in cooperation
with the police and the attorney general. District attorneys said
that while they were interested in whether sequential lineups might
improve identifications, the matter needed far more study and
debate before a shift could be made.
based on long-established case law and could be particularly hard
to change in New York's sprawling system.
because the police department is so small, or because it is so late
department like his might have a hard time finding an officer with
no knowledge of a given case to conduct the lineup.
guidelines have fully gone into effect, any other approach will
become a liability that defense lawyers will pounce on.
familiar with the order from the attorney general that there has
been a new way to do identifications?'" Mr. Rodbart said.
"And then the officer says, `Yeah, I heard something about that.'
And then the defense attorney's voice rises, `Did you follow that
order?' and bang, he's on track to knock the case down."