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Is Eyewitness Testimony a Sure Thing?

Eyewitness testimony can often provide critical evidence during a criminal trial.  When a victim or witness picks a suspect from a police lineup, their identification carries great weight with cops, prosecutors, and juries.  If you have been charged with a crime and identified in a lineup, you may fear your case is over.  Not necessarily so.  Eyewitness testimony is, in fact, notoriously unreliable.  And the procedures that police follow during a lineup can impact a witness’s identification in subtle ways.

The science behind eyewitness testimony

According to The Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification contributed to more than 70 percent of wrongful convictions nationwide that were overturned by DNA testing.  A Scientific American article lists a variety of factors that can contribute to inaccurate witness identifications, including:

  • extreme stress at the crime scene or during the lineup procedure;
  • weapons present or used in the crime (intensifying stress and causing witnesses to focus on the weapon rather than the perpetrator);
  • the perpetrator’s use of a disguise;
  • racial disparities between the witness and suspect (research shows that people more easily identify others of their own race);
  • lineup procedures, including short viewing times; and
  • a suspect’s lack of unique identifying features, such as tattoos or extreme height or weight.

Lineup procedures can contribute to misidentification

The National Institute of Justice, in a piece entitled “Police Lineups: Making Eyewitness Identification More Reliable,” notes that a lineup consists of placing a suspect among non-suspects (also called fillers) and asking the eyewitness (or victim) to identify the perpetrator.  A lineup can be done using live individuals or photographs.  According to the NIJ, experts note the following problems which may exist with lineup procedure:

  • Typically, the law enforcement professional handling the lineup knows who the suspect is, and may give the witness verbal or nonverbal cues as to the suspect’s identity.
  • Administrators may fail to give a pre-lineup instruction that the suspect may or may not be present. When this instruction is given, instances of misidentification decrease.
  • Fillers may not look like the suspect, thereby causing the suspect to stand out.

Recommendations for improving identification reliability

Based on a 2014 report from the National Academy of Sciences, The Innocence Project recommends the following reforms to lineup procedure:

  • Lineups should be “blind,” so that the administering officer does not know who the suspect is.
  • Fillers should resemble the witness’s description of the perpetrator, and should look similar to the suspect.
  • The witness should be told ahead of time that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that the results of the lineup will not conclude the investigation.
  • The administering officer should document a statement from the witness at the time about the witness’s confidence level in the identification.
  • Lineup identifications should be video and/or audio recorded whenever possible.

Florida has no statewide standard for police lineup procedures.  In 2011, state legislators attempted to pass a bill standardizing lineup procedures (including blind administration), but the bill failed in the House of Representatives.

Consult an Orlando criminal defense lawyer

The dedicated criminal defense lawyers of The Baez Law Firm have experience representing those charged with crimes in Orlando, Miami, Tampa, and throughout the state.  Contact us for a consultation about your case today.

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