When Francisco Carrillo, Jr., was falsely convicted of a fatal drive-by shooting, it was the result of an improper eyewitness identification. A Sheriff’s deputy brought in the 15-year-old eyewitness, showed him a single photo and said it was their lead suspect.
Showing an eyewitness a single suspect, however, can easily lead the witness. Very often, people are unsure of their ability to recognize the suspect and will take cues from the police. Even when people are confident in their memories, studies have demonstrated that police influence can mislead them into choosing the targeted suspect.
The fairest way to perform eyewitness identifications is for the process to be “double blind,” meaning that neither the officers nor the witness knows who the police suspect. In such an identification, an officer who is unfamiliar with the suspect would show the witness a group of photos (or a lineup) containing people similar in appearance and without providing additional information. This prevents the officer from providing cues.
The witness should also be told that the suspect may or may not be there so that the witness doesn’t feel pressured to pick someone even if they’re not sure.
The photos should also be shown one at a time (sequentially, not simultaneously) and the witness asked to confirm yes or no for each one. That way the witness doesn’t just pick one of the photos because it looks the most like the real suspect.
Francisco Carrillo, Jr., spent 20 years in prison due to misidentification by that juvenile and five other eyewitnesses who were shown the same photo. All the witnesses later recanted. After Carrillo’s conviction was overturned, two other men confessed. Unfortunately, this story is all too common in a nation that promises fair trials.
According to the Innocence Project, approximately 70 percent of DNA exonerations involved convictions where eyewitness misidentification was a factor. Nearly half of those involved cross-race misidentifications, which are especially problematic.
Does Stanley from ‘The Office’ have a mustache?
In Season 8 of “The Office,” there is a debate about whether Stanley, an African-American co-worker who is out on leave, sports a mustache. Several coworkers cannot remember. Do you?
Academic studies dating back to 1914 have shown identifications to be much less accurate when the witness and the suspect are of different races. Your ability to remember whether Stanley has a mustache may depend on whether you are African-American.
The issue is so notable that some courts instruct juries on the fact that some people have difficulty accurately identifying people of different races than their own and ask the jurors to consider whether race may have affected the accuracy of a witness’s identification. Unfortunately, not every court issues such instructions.
Whether mandated by law or not, law enforcement should perform all eyewitness identifications using the fairest process. If police coerce or even gently lead witnesses to choose a favored suspect, it defeats the purpose of having an eyewitness at all.