False identification in a photo lineup to blame
The District Attorney General of Multnomah County, Oregon made a bold statement recently. Last October, he created a unit designed to dig through the cases his office had already won a conviction.
Why? To make sure his office’s convictions were just and, perhaps more importantly, to develop a protocol that would help prevent future wrongful convictions.
One practice this new post-conviction unit is hoping to strengthen is one of the most widely used for arrest and prosecution — the photo lineup identification. According to experts, false identification is the most common factor in wrongful convictions.
Last Tuesday in Shelby County, the most recent case of false identification played out when a 21-year old Memphis man was released from the Shelby County jail after being held there for two years. He was arrested in 2013 after an eyewitness picked him out in a photo lineup. During the trial, however, that eyewitness could not identify the same defendant, according to this article in the Commercial Appeal.
The young man was acquitted of the robbery charge and released. That, after losing two years of his life behind bars.
The cost of false identification to the individual and the system can be extraordinary. As of 2013, false identification by an eyewitness was cited as the key factor in 75% of the more than 300 wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA evidence. Most troubling is that 18 of those wrongfully convicted had been sentenced to death.
Despite a growing body of research about the difficulty obtaining solid identification from an eyewitness, a general lack of good procedures persists.
In its first national assessment of law enforcement eyewitness identification standards, the National Institute of Justice found that more than 60% of agencies had no formal policy for administering suspect photo lineups and more than 70% of photo lineups were conducted by administrators who knew the identities of the suspects. This widespread lack of protocol presents a challenge to the integrity of the system. Psychologists have found that highly specific techniques for presenting photos and blind presentation of the photo lineup (no knowledge of the suspect by administrators) can strengthen this practice.
A young Shelby County man now joins the ranks of those who must put his life back together after being charged for a crime he did not commit.
The criminal justice system in Multnomah County, Oregon is working to decrease the likelihood of events like this and increase the likelihood that law enforcement will arrest and prosecute the right person.
It’s the type of reform that all who care about a more just and safe society should encourage.