Posted: June 12, 2013 3:45 PM
A recent National Institute of Justice report reveals a serious lack of official policies for conducting eyewitness identification procedures despite long-standing federal guidelines that urged law enforcement to implement and improve policies for how witnesses are used to identify suspects, reported USA TODAY.
The first national assessment of eyewitness identification standards compiled data from 619 police agencies over 15 months. Eyewitness misidentification continues to be the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing, contributing to nearly 75% of convictions in these cases.
The report, which was produced for the Justice Department's research arm by the Police Executive Research Forum, uncovers that more than four out of five police agencies in the U.S. have no written policies with 84% lacking a written policy for conducting live suspect lineups, and slightly more than 64% without a formal standard for administering photo displays of potential suspects. Research found problems despite the size of the police agency.
Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, characterized the findings as "extremely disturbing."
"These findings are actually worse than we thought they would be," Scheck said, adding that at a minimum, law enforcement agencies should ensure that lineups are being administered by officers who do not know the identity of the suspect to guard against intentional or unintentional influence.
"When you don't know who the suspect is, you are going to get a better answer," he said. "All of the major police organizations have agreed that these best practices not only protect the wrongfully convicted, but they also protect the police."
The guidelines that the National Institute of Justice introduced in 1999 emphasized the benefit of "blind" lineups, meaning that the officer who conducts the lineup shouldn't be aware of the identity of the suspect, so that he or she can't contaminate the identification procedure. Yet the new report found that nearly 70% of police agencies still use officers with knowledge of the suspects and 90% of agencies use "non-blind" administrators in live lineups.
Innocence Project client David Wiggins, who spent 23 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit before DNA evidence proved his innocence, is an unfortunate example of how faulty identification procedures can lead to a wrongful conviction. The 14-year-old victim identified Wiggins in a live lineup, which was not administered under blind conditions. He was the only person who had also appeared in a photo array. His attorney didn’t challenge the identification procedure, and he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Wiggins was exonerated in October after 23 years in prison.
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