Our minds don't work like video recorders, and yet the moment we put an eyewitness to a crime on the stand suddenly we treat his memory like truth from the mountaintop.
Thanks to a generation's worth of research, we know an awful lot about the fickleness of memory. We know eyewitness accounts of crimes are fragmented and suggestible. We know they're apt to go from shaky to confident between the time a cop confirms a witness' lineup choice ("You picked the right guy") and the start of trial.
The live lineup is a staple of modern-day police work in many station houses, Chicago in particular. Anyone who has watched police dramas on film or television knows how it works. And yet erroneous eyewitness testimony is the single greatest contributor to wrongful convictions in the United States.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court restored capital punishment, 86 Death Row inmates across the nation have been exonerated based on claims of innocence. The convictions in more than half of those cases depended at least in part on eyewitnesses, according to a 2001 study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law. In 33 of the cases, eyewitness testimony was the only evidence used against the accused.
Take the experience of Chicagoan James Newsome. His was not a capital case, but the lessons apply to all felony prosecutions. Newsome was driving with a friend on Halloween in 1979 when police stopped them, guns drawn, as possible suspects in the robbery of a prostitute.
One of the officers thought Newsome resembled a composite sketch of a suspect in a murder that occurred a day earlier. Next thing he knew, Newsome was being marched into a live lineup at the police station, where three eyewitnesses fingered him as the man who gunned down South Side convenience store owner Mickey Cohen.
Newsome, who had never before been arrested, spent 15 years in a rat-infested prison serving a life sentence. That's how long it took for fingerprint technology to develop that would prove the prints left at the scene by the killer weren't Newsome's. For five years police knew, but didn't divulge, that the prints belonged to Dennis Emerson, a career criminal.
Newsome and Emerson didn't even look alike.
Newsome was nearly three inches taller.
Newsome had a mole on his nose. Emerson didn't.
Newsome had short-cropped hair. Emerson had more of an Afro.
Decide for yourself from the photos included in this editorial.
Last year, a federal jury awarded Newsome $15 million for being framed by Chicago police for the murder.
False identifications don't simply represent the failure of a single witness. It's not uncommon for multiple witnesses to make the same bad ID. In Newsome's case, at least one of the witnesses was shown a photograph of Newsome before he viewed the live lineup, and one was instructed by police to "take another look at No. 3" when he twice picked someone else in the lineup.
Of course, most police departments don't follow such egregiously bad practices. But there are myriad ways officers conducting photo spreads or live lineups can send subtle clues to steer eyewitnesses to identify the person who police believe is the real suspect.
Gary Wells, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, has spent more than 20 years studying police "sixpack" lineups and photo spreads, as well as the memory of eyewitnesses to a crime. Through repeated experiments with staged crimes in front of college students, he has found that the practice of lining a bunch of suspects up at once has a higher error rate than if suspects are shown to witnesses individually, in sequence. The same is true with photo spreads.
Why? Because when all suspects are viewed at once, the eyewitness is tempted to make a relative judgment (Who most resembles the suspect among those present?) rather than an absolute one (Is this the person who committed the crime?).
When the real perpetrator is not in the sequential lineup, witnesses…