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Proper Eyewitness Identification Procedures

NCJ Number
Law and Order Volume: 51 Issue: 10 Dated: October 2003 Pages: 195-198
Marc Green
Date Published
October 2003
4 pages
This article describes a protocol designed to ensure that eyewitness identification procedures from mugshots or a lineup are unbiased.
Although research has shown that even under good visibility humans are unskilled in facial identification, eyewitness identification of suspects remains an important component of criminal investigations and jury decisionmaking. The risk of inaccurate eyewitness identifications must be reduced through the use of scientifically objective protocols for mugshot and lineup identifications. From a scientific perspective, a valid finding of fact requires that the outcome is not contaminated by confounding variables (those other than the ones whose effects are explicitly being measured) or biased toward desired results. Moreover, each observation should be independent and unrelated to any other. Photospreads and lineups often fail to meet these criteria because they offer many opportunities for a biased result. Eyewitness research has consistently found that identification is a relative judgment, i.e., the witness does not simply compare each picture to his/her memory, but rather looks at all the pictures or persons and then picks the one most likely to be the culprit. To counter this tendency, eyewitnesses must be told that the suspect may not be in the photos or in the lineup and that there is no expectation that one of the pictures or the persons be picked as the suspect. Many studies have shown that explicitly telling the witness that the culprit may not be in the array greatly reduces false identifications while having little effect on correct ones. Accuracy can be further increased by presenting the witness with photos and lineups of persons with features similar to the suspect, so that no one photo or person clearly has more features of the suspect than the others. The witness should also be told that the examiner has no idea who the suspect is; otherwise, the eyewitness might look for a sign of confirmation, real or imagined. Should the witness choose a person from the photospread/lineup, examiners must be careful not to express approval or give any sign of confirmation. Any expression or behavior that would lead to or confirm an identification must be scrupulously avoided.


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