Saturday, September 29, 2007

Dallas PD to participate in study of lineup procedures

The new web poll I've posted for the week asks: "If a serious crime were committed and you were falsely accused, would you have an alibi for last night?" If your answer is "No," or "only part of the evening," how would you feel if a crime victim picked your face out of a photo lineup and insisted that you were guilty?

That scenario plays out more often than most people realize, and sometimes innocent people are convicted and sent to prison, as evidenced by the string of DNA-based exonerations in Dallas.

The Texas Legislature may have declined to improve police lineup procedures this year, but the Dallas Police Department and Dallas County DA Craig Watkins are moving forward as part of a national study to identify best practices. Though historically eyewitness testimony has been given the status of a courtroom gold standard, "photo lineup methods vary from agency to agency, and more and more research continues to cast doubt on the accuracy of eyewitness testimony," the Dallas News reported this week. ("Lineups by police get long look," Sept. 26)

The decision to participate in the study, reported the News, sprang from Dallas' recent string of wrongful convictions overturned. Said the News:

there's a consistent culprit in the bad cases, which date back to 1981. Notoriously unreliable eyewitness testimony was relied on in at least 11 of them.

Now the Dallas Police Department is joining the national debate among law enforcement agencies, academic institutions and state legislatures over the best way for police to conduct photo lineups. Dallas plans to be one of several cities taking part in a study that seeks to come up with the best possible way to confirm eyewitness identifications.

The $300,000 federally funded study will be led by the Washington-based Urban Institute beginning in January. Officials have also been in discussions with Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., as well as other cities, about participating in the study.

Surely, one would think, even the most ruthless "tuff on crime" maven wants the right person punished, and faulty lineup procedures invite such mistakes. The News has a good description of problems identified with traditional police photo lineups:

Most law enforcement agencies, including Dallas police, have in recent years favored a traditional method in which six photos are shown simultaneously to the victim or witness by an investigator who knows the identity of the suspected guilty party.

But many psychologists consider the traditional method to be similar to conducting a multiple choice test where "none of the above doesn't seem like a possible answer," said James Doyle, director of the Center for Modern Forensic Practice at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

"What the psychologists believe is happening is that witnesses will pick out the person who looks most like the perpetrator by comparing the people in the array to each other," Mr. Doyle said.

By knowing the identity of the potential suspect, the administrator may also be giving off cues – likely inadvertently – to the victim or witness while conducting the lineup, he said.

Academic research now tends to favor an approach called sequential double-blind, in which photos are shown one at a time by an administrator who doesn't know who the suspect is.

Showing pictures one at a time provides more accurate results, Mr. Doyle said, because the method is akin to giving a true-false test.

"They have to compare that picture with their memory of the crime," he said "They can't compare the pictures with each other."

Kudos to folks in Dallas for agreeing to participate in the study, and let's hope by the time the 81st Texas Legislature rolls around in 2009 Texas can get past the debate over whether to change and move forward with best practices that prevent more convictions of innocent people.

MORE: See more alibis from Fark. Welcome Farkers!

UPDATE: The Eyewitness ID Blog says the Dallas study's methodology sounds suspect.


Anonymous said...

Excellent, excellent news.

Anonymous said...

I really dont understand how they think photographs are a good diea at all. You cant tell height, build, posture etc from a photograph. Here, police still use traditional human body line-ups, and usually pay £10 to anyone who volunteers to be in one ~ students make up a good number of those taking part. But then, here police would never be able to convict purely on an eye witness testimony anyway.

Perhaps 'best practice' should be expanded to include other countries and not just other states?

No one said...

Sunray, the problem is deeper than using a line-up and bad identification by a material witness. Texas is a very "prosecution-friendly" state, and the defense starts with a huge disadvantage (for instance: no subpoena power). Many evidentiary rulings go in favor of the state, and the standards for things such as specificity in the charging instrument are relaxed and favor prosecutions.

Given the cultural mindset of most people in Texas, "innocent until proven guilty" is only words. The presumption is actually against the defendant ("He must've done something wrong, otherwise he wouldn't be here") and defendants often have to produce exculpatory evidence, rather than rest on the fact that the prosecution has not proven its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

I'm glad that some jurisdictions in Texas are finally realizing how unfair the system is, and why so many good people get railroaded by the system.

Anonymous said...

I agree 100% that eyewitness accounts are notoriously unreliable. I can testify to this because of an incident that happened to me. My wife accused me of having an affair because her sister told her she saw me and some brunette girl from my office going into a roadside motel here in town. I told my wife that it wasn't me, her sister is obviously unstable, and also none of the girls I work with are brunette. The closest shade would probably be Cindy, and her hair isn't brunette at all, but actually more of walnut brown. Now this article has come out to completely exonerate me! It's nice to feel innocent again, and the girl I work with (Cindy) will be happy to hear it as well!

Anonymous said...

Never forgot the news story from a few years back wherein the guy found guilty of rape was released after DNA evidence AND the real perpetrator admitting to the crime proved the falsely accused and convicted was just that.... innocent.

But, the female victim who testified at the trial using visual recognition to identify the wrongly accused as her assailant vehemently proclaimed in the news story that the guy being released WAS the guilty one.

There have been many instances wherein visual identification of a suspect by the victim has been proven to be wrong.

People tend to have very unreliable memories when it comes to identifying others, especially when the victim was stressed during the crime.

It is sad there are so many innocent people locked up.

Even sadder are those who were wrongly executed. Rational thinking people know the odds are there has had to have been at least several executions where an innocent died.

Yet, the masses of brain-dead Americans, devoid of logical thinking skills, still cry out for blood.

Eric said...

Very insightful. There's also a study that happened back in the 1990's, I think, where a guy was falsely accused because the police had inadvertently created a false memory in the victim. They had shown the victim a photo lineup, and then later showed them a "live" lineup. The only common thing between the two was that one guy, who I think was a security guard at the place or something, was both in the photo and live lineups. The victim, having previously seen the guy's photo and forgotten this, automatically assumed that since the last time they could remember seeing the guy that it was was involved with the case, he must have been the criminal.

The guy got off, IIRC, but it just stands as an example of why photos don't do much good.

PunditTree said...

I am a peace officer in California and I'm glad to see a study of this type in progress. I have witnessed, firsthand, the false identification of a detainee as the suspect of a felony crime. It took me a great deal of work to discover that person was, indeed, innocent. Mind you, the identification was made during an actual in-field line-up where the detainee was physically present. You can imagine how faulty a photo line-up can be.

Even if the citizen is what we sometimes call a "good" victim, they shouldn't be expected to accurately identify the suspect. They are often in an addled state and sometimes want to see some justice dealt out to assuage their feelings of anger and/or violation (regardless of the facts at hand). I've even heard comments such as, "Well, they've been detained by the police so they must have done something wrong anyway."

Christina Dunigan said...

Cops need to remember that the mind and memory of victims and witnesses are part of the crime scene, and take great scientific care to gather evidence from them, not to (however inadvertently) create false evidence.

Anonymous said...

My alibi for last night would be my wife. I'm sure there are innocent people who are convicted despite the testimony of family members. It's scary when the only thing connecting you to a crime is somebody picking you out of a book.

vsync said...

lane, surely that can't be true (no subpoena power for the defense).

The 6th Amendment to the US Constitution states "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right [...] to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor[....]"

14th Amendment says "No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

Anonymous said...

I can agree with this article.
I was dating a guy named Jayson Barclay, and his wife's sister caught us. Well, Jayson managed to actually convince her that she saw someone else! Can you believe that?

Toad said...

I have heard of police putting undercover officers into the lineup in order to create a "Control" element- I wonder how often they get identified as an offender?

Anonymous said...

It's all racial.