Study of Year-Long Pilot Project Shows that Key Eyewitness Identification Reforms Are Effective
“The study of Hennepin County’s pilot project produces solid, reliable data that other cities, counties, and states should look to when considering how to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification,” says Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck
(NEW YORK; JULY 26, 2006) – Results of a new study published in an academic review show that eyewitness identification reforms advocated by a cross-section of organizations and leaders can help protect innocent people and improve the accuracy of police lineups and other identification procedures. The study is the first to use scientifically valid research techniques to evaluate the eyewitness identification reform in the field – in a “real world” application, rather than an academic setting.
Results of a year-long pilot program using blind sequential lineups – those where the official administering the lineup doesn’t know who the suspect is, and subjects are presented to the witness one at a time, rather than all together – in Hennepin County, Minnesota, are published in the new issue of the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York. The Hennepin County Attorney’s office spearheaded the effort to improve eyewitness identification procedures, and the data was analyzed by Nancy Steblay, an eyewitness scientist at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, who co-wrote the article with Amy Klobuchar, who is now serving her second term as Hennepin County Attorney, and Hilary Lindell Caligiuri, an Assistant Hennepin County Attorney.
The article, “Improving Eyewitness Identifications: Hennepin County’s Blind Sequential Lineup Pilot Project,” reports that the scientific evaluation of the year-long pilot project resulted in fewer witnesses identifying “fillers” (or lineup subjects who are not the actual suspect), which shows that blind sequential lineups reduce the number of witnesses who guess when identifying a suspect – and reduce the number of innocent people identified in lineups.
“There is a generation worth of peer-reviewed, scientific research that demonstrates the power of blind sequential lineups to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identifications – and this study shows that when properly administered in the field, law enforcement can employ these reforms to protect the innocent and apprehend the guilty,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project. “This is the first of what we hope will be a number of field studies that use scientifically sound techniques to evaluate blind sequential lineups.”
The year-long pilot project in Hennepin County involved four police departments (in Minneapolis, two large suburban communities, and one smaller community). The newly published article explains that while the departments were initially concerned about implementing the procedures, they all implemented creative solutions and adapted quickly – and they all embraced the study’s findings.
“This new study shows what can happen when solid reforms are implemented by open-minded police departments whose top priority is making law enforcement more effective. The result is lineups that are more accurate, which only strengthens police investigations while also protecting the innocent,” Scheck said. “The study of Hennepin County’s pilot program produces solid, reliable data that other cities, counties, and states should look to when considering how to improve the accuracy of eyewitness identification procedures.”
The Hennepin County pilot project sought to answer two questions: whether the number and quality of identifications would change with the blind sequential lineup procedure, and whether police departments could smoothly and effectively implement the procedure. “Analysis of the data and anecdotal responses from the participating police agencies led to the conclusion that the new protocol is both efficient to implement and effective in reducing the potential for misidentifications,” the Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal article says.
According to the Innocence Project, 183 people nationwide have been exonerated through DNA testing, and eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 75 percent of those wrongful convictions.
Blind sequential eyewitness identification reforms are recognized by police, prosecutorial and judicial experience, as well as national justice organizations, including the National Institute of Justice and the American Bar Association. The benefits of these reforms are corroborated by over 25 years of peer-reviewed scientific research. A range of jurisdictions – including the State of New Jersey and cities such as Winston Salem, NC, Boston, MA, and Virginia Beach, VA – have implemented the reforms as standard procedure.