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State law enforcement works to improve eyewitness identifications

Imagine how you would feel if you were sent to prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Now, imagine how the victim would feel upon learning the wrong person was put behind bars and the real perpetrator is free.

Wrongful convictions hurt everyone involved, and police and prosecutors should be among the most highly motivated groups to prevent wrongful convictions and rectify the situation when they are discovered.

Consider the case of Malcolm A. Thirty-eight years ago, he was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola after being convicted of an armed rape of a woman in her antique shop. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole -- but now DNA evidence shows he could not have been the perpetrator. Nearly 40 years after the events, the trail on the real perpetrator is cold.

What happened? Poor police identification practices led the victim to identify the wrong man. Somehow, her original “tentative” identification of Malcolm A. morphed into one she felt certain of at the time of trial.

That’s not unusual. Since the 1930s, evidence has been building that some standard lineup and photo ID practices used by police departments nationwide have a tendency to lead to the wrong suspects.

This is in part because of the nature of memory. People don’t remember events with videotape accuracy, but rather as a cluster of experience, emotions and expectations. That means that memories are surprisingly porous and open to influence. When police perform eyewitness identifications in certain, common ways, they can lead the witness toward the person they expect.

There is some good news in this area. According to the Innocence Project, 25 states including Wisconsin have taken steps toward reforming their eyewitness identification procedures. States and law enforcement agencies are working to avoid false IDs by:

  • Adopting double-blind lineups with officers who do not know which participant is the suspect. When the witness knows the officer cannot “help” with the identification, they are much less likely to try to read cues.
  • Telling the witness that the perpetrator might not be in the lineup so they don’t just pick the person who most resembles their memory.
  • Including a single suspect and at least five non-suspects who resemble the witness’s description of the perpetrator.
  • Recording the witness’s level of confidence in their identification.
  • In at least one state, videotaping the identification from start to finish so it can be reviewed later.

The goal of the prosecution should not be just to convict someone but to convict the actual perpetrator. Unfortunately, the Innocence Project says that, of over 350 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, inaccurate eyewitness identifications were involved in 71.

What’s unclear is how many more falsely identified people still sit in prison, without DNA evidence to exonerate them. Many cases do not have any biological evidence that could be tested for DNA. Others are old and any potential DNA evidence has since been lost or destroyed. Estimates of innocent people imprisoned in the United States have ranged from 1-5 percent. With a prison population of 2 million, that means between 20,000 and 100,000 people imprisoned in America today may be innocent of any crime. As many as 1 in 25 on death row may be innocent.

More needs to be done to look at those still in prison who may be there on the strength of flawed eyewitness identifications. Some prosecutor offices have established “conviction integrity units” empowered to look back at convictions and determine whether mistakes may have been made, including faulty eyewitness identification. That’s a trend that needs to be accelerated and replicated nationwide.

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