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Why police lineups don’t always work

On Behalf of | Nov 2, 2022 | Criminal Defense |

A typical police lineup usually works by assembling a group of people and having each of them hold up a number. The witness stands behind glass and tells the police if they recognize the suspect. This is part of standard procedure when police are conducting an investigation in South Carolina.

Suspicions of inaccuracy have been confirmed

Now that DNA testing has provided law enforcement with a more reliable means of determining someone’s identity, it has also shown that eyewitness identification isn’t nearly as reliable as it was once thought to be. But the idea that eyewitness identification may yield questionable results started a long time before DNA testing ever came into play.

The number one reason why people are wrongfully convicted is because of mistaken identification by an eyewitness. This statistic underlined the seriousness of the issue enough for the Attorney General at the time to create a panel of experts that will look into the problem and seek solutions.

The shortcomings of eyewitness identification

The problems with using eyewitnesses to identify a suspect out of a lineup start with their own personal biases that the witness is operating from internally. Memory is also highly malleable, so it doesn’t take long for even the most observant witness to start forgetting details of the criminal and start unconsciously inventing new ones.

The way the information is presented is one of the main ways that investigators can throw off a witness. Researchers have discovered that one major factor in the accuracy of the witness’s selection is how the instructions are given to them.

The eyewitnesses who are told that they aren’t required to pick a suspect are less likely to falsely identify someone as a criminal. It also doesn’t make witnesses less likely to make a positive identification when police present the instructions in this way.

Countless inmates have been put in a situation where their conviction, prison sentence and entire future were contingent on what an eyewitness said when presented with a lineup of suspects viewed through a two-way mirror. This method of identification has shown to be far less accurate than people once believed, so law enforcement must revise their practices in response to this.

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