With the passage of the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act earlier this week, police across North Carolina are now required to adhere to certain best practices with respect to lineup procedures, which have been shown to reduce the likelihood that innocent people will be identified from a lineup.
The reform measures include “blind” administration of lineups, where someone not connected to the case who doesn’t know which person is the suspect will be required to conduct the lineup, to prevent that person’s knowledge from sending inadvertent cues to the witness. Lineups must also be conducted sequentially (one photo at a time) as opposed to simultaneously, which has been shown to reduce the problem of “relative judgments,” where witnesses have been observed to pick the person who looks “most like” the culprit from the group, even when, in many cases, that person is innocent. Sequential presentation of lineup members has been shown to reduce guessing in general, which is thought to be a primary cause of eyewitness-related wrongful conviction.
Under the new legislation, lineup administrators in North Carolina will also be required to take confidence statements from witnesses, in their own words, immediately following an ID. Administrators are also prohibited from giving any feedback or making comments of any kind prior to recording that confidence statement, in order to reduce the likelihood that the witness’s confidence will be distorted by intervening influences.
Lineups in North Carolina must also be videotaped whenever practical, and when not, an explanation must be documented, in addition to rigorous detail relating to the lineup procedure itself, including retention of the photographs themselves in photo lineups, the source of the photos, the identities of the individuals, and any words used by the witness to describe an identification.
Remedies for noncompliance include, at the court’s discretion, suppression of ID evidence at trial, as well as jury instructions on the effect of noncompliance on the reliability of identification evidence.
The findings of the General Assembly are also interesting:
(1) Throughout the nation and in North Carolina innocent people have been accused or convicted of serious crimes because of mistaken eyewitness identification.
(2) Mistaken lineup identifications distract law enforcement agencies from apprehending perpetrators.
(3) Reports of the United States Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, 25 years of peer‑reviewed scientific research, and the experiences of practitioners across the country indicate that the accuracy of eyewitness identification can be greatly enhanced by the use of “blind” administrators, instructions to the witness, confidence statements, and the proper composition of lineups.
As North Carolina joins the growing list of states adopting similar legislation, it is becoming increasingly clear that lawmakers are running out of patience for remedying the wrongful conviction problem. Let’s hope states like Georgia will be quick to follow suit, despite Georgia and other states’ prosecutors’ continued resistance to practical measures that are demonstrated to reduce the conviction of innocents.