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Identifications made during police lineups are often unreliable

by | Jul 18, 2018 | Criminal Defense |

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania have not yet taken steps to revise the way police departments conduct lineups, although such changes have been implemented in many states. The reliability of eyewitness identifications has been a controversial issue for decades, but legislators and police departments only began to take action when incontrovertible DNA evidence was introduced in the 1980s and it became clear that many people had been sentenced to prison for crimes they did not commit.

Advocacy groups like the Innocence Project have been at the vanguard of the struggle to reform lineup procedures. Of the more than 350 wrongful convictions overturned by the introduction of DNA evidence, 71 percent involved eyewitnesses who misidentified suspects according to the nonprofit group. When researchers from Michigan State University studied 2,245 exonerations, they found that misidentification played a role in more than 650 of them.

Few are suggesting that these eyewitnesses intentionally lied, but numerous studies have concluded that members of the public feel an obligation to help the police and feel that they must identify somebody when given the chance. Other research has discovered that all people have trouble identifying members of a different race. Many states have introduced double-blind lineups to address these problems. In a double-blind lineup, the police officer assisting the eyewitness is not told who the suspect is. Police departments around the country are generally receptive to these changes, and groups including the International Association of Chiefs of Police support them.

Experienced criminal defense attorneys may pay particular attention to police reports when the cases against their clients are based largely on an eyewitness identification, and they may seek to have charges reduced or dismissed when the supporting forensic and physical evidence is less than compelling. Attorneys could also encourage prosecutors to reconsider pursuing cases based on evidence that has been questioned by experts for decades.