In 1984 a man named Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted of the rape and murder of a nine-year-old girl and was placed on death row. This man was convicted largely due to testimony of five eyewitnesses who identified him as the one who committed this horrible crime. However, after spending nine years in prison, DNA testing proved Bloodsworth to be innocent (Lilienfeld). Bloodsworth’s story is just one of hundreds of stories where innocent people are wrongly imprisoned and even executed. The Innocence Project in New York City has made it their mission to exonerate these wrongfully convicted people. To date, they have exonerated 310 individuals all of whom have served an average of 13.6 years in prison. In over 75% of these cases, mistaken eyewitness identifications caused these individuals to be convicted (Lacy). This teaches us that there is nothing that carries more weight in a courtroom than the testimony of an actual witness, even if that testimony is incorrect (Loftus). This begs the question, why are so many eyewitness identifications wrong and what can be done to prevent eyewitnesses from identifying innocent people like Bloodsworth?
There are many factors that influence eyewitnesses’ ability to correctly identify the perpetrator of a crime. Each time that a memory is recalled it is reconstructed rather than played back. According to psychologist and memory researcher Elizabeth F. Loftus memory is “more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording” (Lilienfeld). This puzzle can be influenced by many factors including simple forgetting. Ebbinghaus created his famous “forgetting curve” which revealed that people are unable to retrieve roughly 50% of information just one hour after it is encoded (Lacy). This can play a huge role in an eyewitness’ ability to correctly identify the perpetrator of a crime. As over time they will simply forget important details about the perpetrator that would allow them to identify him/her. Take the U.S. penny for example, most people in the U.S. would insist that they would have no trouble recognizing the penny when they saw it. However, in a study conducted in 1979 less than 50% of the subjects picked out the correct version of the penny among fifteen possible designs (Loftus). This is just one more example of how memory is never perfect.
Due to the unreliability of memory, law enforcement officials must create an environment where memories can be recalled accurately. To do this the double-blind lineup needs be used when asking eyewitnesses to identify a perpetrator. In double-blind lineups neither the police officer administering it nor the eyewitness know which of the photos, if any, is the suspect (Hughes). This prevents the police from inadvertently giving the eyewitness clues as to who the suspect in the lineup is. For example, the police officer might conspicuously stare at one of the photos or ask the witness to re-examine that photo while they are trying to identify the culprit (Loftus). Witnesses have a natural desire to help with the case and to identify the perpetrator, so their mind will take in these little bits of information and unconsciously “fill in” a vague and fuzzy memory with the image of the person that the police officer is hinting towards (Loftus). The double-blind lineup prevents this from happening because the police officer administering the test does not know who the actual suspect is. As a result, they will not be able to give any little clues to the eyewitness trying to identify the suspect.
One critique of the double-blind lineup procedure is that it is not cost effective as it will require extra manpower to run these lineups. While this could have been the case in less advanced times, now we have computer programs that can run the lineup for the witness with no police present. (Lacy) This way the police station does not have to hire anyone extra and the eyewitness will not be influenced by having a police officer in the room that knows who the suspect is.
In addition to double-blind lineups, sequential lineups must also be adapted by all agencies. Today, most agencies use simultaneous lineups. These lineups show all the potential suspects at once. However, there is a huge flaw to this kind of lineup. According to psychology researcher Gary Wells, “Witnesses have a natural propensity to identify the person in the lineup who looks most like the perpetrator relative to the others. The problem with that is that if the real perp’s not there, there’s still somebody who looks more like the perpetrator than the others” (Hughes). To solve this problem, Wells and many other psychologists determined that the sequential lineup must be used. In this kind of lineup, witnesses view photos of the suspects one at a time and respond “yes,” “no,” or “I don’t know” to each picture. In Wells’ studies he found that these sequential lineups “slashed” the rates of false identifications considerably. In his first study the number of incorrect accusations went down from 43 to 17 percent (Hughes). That is a lot more innocent people saved from becoming trapped in a prison while the real perpetrator walks free.
Critiques of the sequential lineup argue that it increases the number of missed identifications. While this is true, according to a study done on sequential versus simultaneous lineups, only the difference in those falsely accused was “statistically significant” (Wells). The number of people who are missed is so slight that it is worth this small increase to protect so many innocent people from going to jail. The “don’t know” option in sequential lineups has also been proven to reduce the number of missed identifications. Recent work has found that this option reduces both incorrect rejections and incorrect identifications with “no significant reduction in accurate identification rates” (Wells).
To stop false eyewitness identifications, the double-blind sequential lineup must be adapted by all agencies. So far, only 32% of all agencies have adapted the sequential procedure (Wells). This percentage needs to greatly increase. To date, more than seven thousand people have been executed and a recent study indicates that at least twenty-five of those executed were innocent (Loftus). That’s twenty-five people whose lives were taken for no reason. With the double-blind sequential lineup these occurrences can be greatly reduced and even stopped. People like Bloodsworth will no longer have to spend years locked away in prison facing death row for a crime that they did not commit. Therefore, the double-blind sequential lineup needs to be adapted by every single agency in the country.
Hughes, Virginia. “Why Police Lineups Will Never Be Perfect.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 Oct. 2014, www.theatlantic.com/amp/article/381046/.
Lacy, Joyce W., and Craig E. L. Stark. “The Neuroscience of Memory: Implications for the Courtroom.” Nature reviews. Neuroscience 14.9 (2013): 649–658. PMC. Web. 23 Oct. 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4183265/.
Lilienfeld, Hal Arkowitz Scott O. “Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eyewitness Accounts.” Scientific American, 1 Jan. 2010, www.scientificamerican.com/article/do-the-eyes-have-it/.
Loftus, Elizabeth, and Katherine Ketcham. “The Magic of the Mind.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/dna/photos/eye/text_06.html.
Wells, Gary L, et al. “Double-Blind Photo Lineups Using Actual Eyewitnesses: An Experimental Test of a Sequential Versus Simultaneous Lineup Procedure.” Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2 Nov. 2015, pp 1-14, www.concept-ce.com/sequential-lineup-procedure-shows-advantage-over-simultaneous/.