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Can police line-ups in criminal cases be more accurate?

Eyewitness testimony provides dramatic energy to TV crime show such as Law & Order, reflecting real-life police work solving violent and other crimes. However, law enforcement across the United States is beginning to change its attitude toward this feature of criminal prosecution.

Several jurisdictions are considering changes in how police conduct line-ups. In Washington D.C., for example, local legislators have introduced a law that would require both cops and witnesses to be ignorant of who the actual suspect is. The idea is to reduce the subtle influence of police officers conducting the line-up.

False identification by eyewitnesses is the most important factor in wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project. Nearly 75 percent of convictions overturned by DNA evidence were based on eyewitness identification.

Experts on memory say that it is not a recorder, like video or photographs. It is easily manipulated, according to James M. Doyle, a criminal defense attorney who has written two books on this issue. Crime victims are already under stress. They are vulnerable to time pressures and the mistaken belief that the suspect must be one of the individuals in the line-up.

Police officers deliberately or accidentally give cues to the eyewitness trying to pick out a suspect. Gestures, sighs, coughs can influence an eyewitness who wishes to help.

The policemen's union in Washington opposes the proposed law. It would require an additional officer not involved in the investigation to conduct the line-up. The union points to the costs associated with diverting an officer to the line-up process. That officer may be required at trial as well. The chairman of the union noted that many of the overturned convictions have been very old and that the process for eyewitness identification has changed. Few criminals today are convicted based solely on witness identification.

The D.C. proposal has failed to pass twice in the last five years, but advocates in the City Council are hopeful. Similar processes have been instituted in Dallas, and New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut and Ohio are among the states that require double-blind line-ups.

Source: The Atlantic Cities, "The Problem With Police Line-Ups," Feb. 19, 2013.

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