It’s well established by now that eyewitness testimony is among the most unreliable forms of evidence in a criminal trial and one county with a pretty bad track record with its law enforcement is taking some steps to reduce the chances of wrongly identified suspects.
The Prince George’s County Police Department is transforming how detectives conduct photo lineups in an effort to prevent innocent people from going to prison.
Starting this spring, detectives must show witnesses photos of potential suspects one at a time on separate pieces of paper rather than all at once on a single page. Lineups must also be “blind,” which means a detective unfamiliar with the case must present photos to witnesses instead of an officer investigating the crime.
The method is called the “double-blind sequential lineup.” The goal is to reduce chances that witnesses would falsely identify suspects or that detectives would unwittingly nudge witnesses to choose a particular photo.“You don’t want to catch the wrong guy because now you’re messing with someone who is innocent and the bad guy is still out there,” said Carlos F. Acosta, inspector general for the Prince George’s police.
The county is not alone in overhauling its lineup policies. Baltimore adopted new photo lineup policies in the fall, while the practice has become the norm in Dallas, North Carolina, Philadelphia and other jurisdictions. And late last month, Maryland state Sen. Catherine E. Pugh (D-Baltimore) introduced a bill in the General Assembly that would require all law enforcement agencies to change their procedures to blind but not sequential lineups.
That’s a good first step, but only a first step. There are dozens of reforms that need to be put in place to help reduce the chances of a wrongful conviction. About 75% of all murder and rape convictions that have been overturned on the basis of DNA evidence by the Innocence Project had positive eyewitness identifications in the case.