Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 70% of the 551 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. They are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in sexual assault and robbery cases.
In Louisiana, 20/22 DNA exonerations involved eyewitness misidentifications. Those 15 men served a total of 365 years for crimes they did not commit. Eyewitness misidentifications played a role in another 17 Louisiana exonerations that did not involve DNA evidence.
The study of the psychology of eyewitness evidence over the last 40 years shows that there are problems with traditional eyewitness practices that increase the likelihood of wrongful identification of an innocent suspect.
Traditional Eyewitness Identification Practices – and Problems
In a standard lineup, photographs are displayed together and the lineup administrator typically knows who the suspect is. Research shows that this leads to entirely unintentional cues to the eyewitness about which person to pick from the lineup.
How to Improve the Accuracy of Eyewitness Identifications
Innocence Project New Orleans endorses a range of procedural reforms to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification supported by major law enforcement organizations and backed by 30 years of research. The ‘core four’ reforms for eyewitness identification policies and laws are:
- Double-blind or Blinded Administration: A “double-blind” lineup is one in which neither the administrator nor the eyewitness knows the identity of the suspect. This prevents the administrator from providing inadvertent or intentional cues to influence the eyewitness to pick the suspect.
- Instructions: “Instructions” are a series of statements issued by the lineup administrator to the eyewitness that deter the eyewitness from feeling compelled to make a selection. One of the recommended instructions includes the directive that the suspect may or may not be present in the lineup.
- Composing the Lineup: Non-suspect photographs and/or live lineup members (fillers) should be selected based on their resemblance to the description provided by the eyewitness – as opposed to their resemblance to the police suspect. In addition, the suspect should not noticeably stand out from among the other fillers.
- Confidence Statements: Immediately following the identification procedure, the eyewitness should be asked to provide a statement, in his or her own words, that articulates the level of confidence in the identification made. It is important to capture the level of certainty at the time the identification is made because eyewitness confidence tends to increase over time.
IPNO also advocates for using sequential, rather than simultaneous, photographic arrays and minimizing repeat exposures to a suspect.
Further, IPNO advocates for a corroboration rule, that eliminates cases being prosecuted based on the word of one witness, whether or not they are an eyewitness, would help minimize wrongful convictions based on mistaken eyewitnesses.
To that end, IPNO worked with Louisiana legislators to pass comprehensive eyewitness identification procedure reform law in the spring of 2018. Act 466 was signed into law May 23, 2018. IPNO will continue to work with law enforcement agencies around the state to implement the requirements of the act, train officers and continue to develop practices to improve accuracy.