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Police changing lineup procedures to reduce errors

Research shows that criminal eyewitness identifications tend to be unreliable, meaning defendants in Maryland and elsewhere could be wrongfully convicted if such evidence is used in a trial. As a result, many police departments are finally changing the way they conduct police lineups.

Eyewitness testimony has been questioned since at least the 1930s. Experts say that, unlike a tape recording, memory is not fixed. Instead, it can be influenced by a number of factors, including a suspect's race, the instructions given to the witness and the body language of police officers during a lineup. Even though these problems have long been known, most law enforcement agencies resisted making changes until DNA evidence began exonerating wrongfully convicted people. For example, in January, a 58-year-old man was released from a Louisiana prison after new DNA evidence showed he was not the man who raped a woman in 1979.

According to the Innocence Project, the victim misidentified the man after being influenced by police behavior during a lineup. In fact, the organization claims that eyewitness mistakes have been a factor in 71 percent of wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA evidence. Meanwhile, the National Registry of Exonerations claims that 29 percent of wrongful convictions involve mistaken identity. To combat the problem, around half of all states have adopted new lineup procedures. These new procedures include double-blind lineups and telling the witness that the suspect may not be in the lineup. These changes shield witnesses from accidental police influence and help them not to feel pressured into making an identification.

Individuals facing criminal charges could help their situation by working with a criminal defense attorney. An attorney could protect a defendant's rights and challenge any evidence presented in the case, including eyewitness testimony.

Source: PEW, "Police Are Changing Lineups to Avoid False IDs", Michael Ollove, July 13, 2018

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