Lineups in Michigan result in misidentifications

Do you think police and prosecutors are interested in truth and justice? Think again! They know that lineups frequently result in misidentification, but that doesn’t stop them from using them to get convictions.

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Most Reversed Convictions Involved Misidentifications

Lineups and in-court identifications are replete with misidentification. Most convictions that have been reversed based on a finding that the defendant was innocent involved a lineup and in-court identifications. Based on current research, it is undeniable that lineups are unreliable and result in misidentifications.

If you think police and prosecutors are interested in justice, think again. A new study says how lineups are conducted throughout Michigan will likely result in misidentifications.

The study released Monday by the American Judicature Society is part of a growing body of research during the past 35 years that questions the reliability of eyewitness identifications under certain circumstances. That research has been taken more seriously in recent years with the evolution of DNA evidence clearing innocents of crimes they were convicted of, often based on eyewitness testimony. We have all read in the news how a person is released off death row after being convicted of an offense “beyond a reasonable doubt” when he was actually innocent and wrongfully convicted. Unfortunately, the delay between the wrongful conviction and the exoneration is often decades.

The new study finds witnesses should not look at a group of people at once to pick a perpetrator. Instead, they should look at individuals individually with a detective who doesn’t know which is the real suspect – known as a double-blind lineup to avoid giving witnesses unintentional cues – preferably on a computer to ensure appropriate random procedures are used and to record the data.

The study found witnesses using the sequential method were less likely to pick the innocents brought in to fill out the lineup. The theory is that witnesses using the sequential lineup will compare each person to the perpetrator in their memory, instead of comparing them to one another side-by-side to see which most resembles the criminal.

“What we want the witness to do is not decide who looks most like the perpetrator, but decide whether the perpetrator is there or not,” said Gary Wells, an eyewitness identification expert at Iowa State University and the project’s lead researcher.

Wells said the results confirmed many other laboratory experiments that have found sequential lineups more accurate. But he said some police departments have been reluctant to change their practices, wondering if they would apply to real-life witnesses. The truth is police and prosecutors don’t care if they convict the wrong person. They just want to complete cases and move on to others. They figure they get the right person most of the time, and the ends justify the means. It’s sickening, but it’s true.

The Witnesses Did Not Know They Were Participating in a Study About Lineups

This study used actual witnesses who didn’t know they were part of a study but were randomly assigned to use either the sequential or the simultaneous method. It was conducted at police departments in Austin, Texas; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C.; San Diego and Tucson, Ariz.

The witnesses were shown mug shots of one suspect with five “fillers,” or the known innocents. The witnesses picked a filler 18 percent of the time in the simultaneous lineups versus 12 percent for the sequential method. Witnesses picked the suspect about a quarter of the time using both methods.

Wells estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of 16,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States use sequential and double-blind procedures.

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What have studies shown are the reasons for misidentifications at lineups?

Studies have identified several factors contributing to misidentifications at lineups, highlighting the complexities and challenges inherent in eyewitness testimony. These factors include:

  • Stress and Trauma: High levels of stress or trauma experienced by witnesses during the crime can impair their ability to recall and identify faces accurately. The intense emotions of witnessing a crime can affect memory consolidation and retrieval.
  • Cross-Racial Identification: Witnesses are generally less accurate at identifying individuals of a race different from their own, a phenomenon known as the “cross-race effect” or “own-race bias.” This can lead to higher rates of misidentification in cross-racial lineups.
  • Suggestibility and Influence: Witnesses can be influenced by suggestive comments or leading questions from law enforcement officials. Even subtle cues or affirmations can make witnesses more confident in their mistaken identifications. False confidence at a lineup can result in a troubling misidentification and wrongful conviction.
  • Lineup Construction and Presentation: How lineups are constructed and presented can impact identification accuracy and reduce the likelihood of misidentification. For example, if the actual suspect stands out from the lineup due to their appearance or clothing, or if the lineup lacks sufficient fillers who resemble the suspect, it can lead to misidentification.
  • Memory Decay: Over time, a witness’s memory of a suspect’s appearance can degrade, making accurate identification more challenging. The longer the interval between the crime and the lineup, the higher the risk of misidentification.
  • Confidence and Rehearsal Effects: Witnesses who repeatedly view photos or lineups containing the suspect can become more confident in their identification, even if it is incorrect. This rehearsal effect can solidify false memories.
  • Visual Attention and Perception: Factors such as poor lighting, distance, or brief exposure to the suspect during the crime can affect a witness’s ability to perceive and later recall facial features accurately.
  • Witness Age: Both very young and elderly witnesses have been shown to have higher rates of misidentification compared to other age groups. Age-related factors can influence memory and perceptual abilities.
  • Preexisting Expectations and Biases: Witnesses may have conscious or unconscious biases or expectations that influence their perceptions and memory recall, leading them to identify individuals based on stereotypes or assumptions rather than actual memory.

These factors underscore the need for careful consideration and reform in using lineups and eyewitness identifications in the criminal justice system. Implementing best practices, such as double-blind lineup procedures (where the administrator doesn’t know the suspect) and providing clear instructions to witnesses, can help mitigate some of the risks of misidentification.

An Example of Misidentification at a Lineup

Consider a scenario where an individual is mistakenly identified in a lineup as the perpetrator of a robbery. This scenario is an example of how lineups are likely to result in misidentification. The lineup was conducted under suboptimal conditions; for instance, the suspect was the only one wearing a specific type of clothing described by the witness, or the lineup lacked diversity, making the suspect stand out. As a result, the witness, under pressure and influenced by the suggestive setup, confidently identifies this individual as the criminal, leading to their wrongful conviction. Upon reviewing the case, a skilled criminal defense lawyer would meticulously examine the procedures followed during the lineup. They would investigate factors such as the instructions given to the witness, the composition of the lineup, and any potential suggestiveness by law enforcement officials. By consulting with eyewitness identification experts and leveraging knowledge of psychological factors affecting memory and identification, the attorney would build a compelling case challenging the reliability of the witness identification. They then filed a motion to suppress the identification evidence, arguing that the misidentification stemmed from flawed lineup procedures that violated their client’s right to a fair trial. Through rigorous cross-examination and presentation of evidence on the unreliability of the identification, the defense lawyer would seek to exclude the wrongful evidence, protecting their client from the consequences of a misidentification and fighting for suppression of the identification evidence.

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The Premier Michigan Criminal Defense Law Firm

At LEWIS & DICKSTEIN, P.L.L.C., the premier Michigan criminal defense law firm, we closely examine our cases where there are alleged eyewitnesses. While many defense lawyers assume their clients are being untruthful when there is eyewitness evidence, we understand that lineup procedures are severely flawed and often result in misidentification. Even in those cases where our client desires to enter a plea, we understand that challenging an eyewitness identification can result in a more beneficial plea bargain or a more lenient sentence. Call us for a free consultation if you are accused of a crime in Michigan. We will find a way to help you, and, most importantly, we are not afraid to win!

Call us today at (248) 263-6800 for a free consultation or complete an online Request for Assistance Form. We will contact you promptly and find a way to help you.

We will find a way to help you and, most importantly,
we are not afraid to win!

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