Lipstick on a Pig, Part Deux: Scientists vs. Prosecutors

We reported recently that the so-called “Illinois Report” on lineup procedures was found to be unscientific, unreliable, and generally adds no value to the dialogue on the most accurate and reliable police lineup procedures. Today, the Chicago Tribune is running a story, in the wake of the definitive debunking (PDF) of that police-sponsored report from Chicago, suggesting that the best lineup format has yet to be identified.

Two problems with this characterization strike me with equal force. The first problem is that the “disagreement” is one of conflicting agendas, not unresolved questions of science. Scientists, with their well-known bias in favor of facts, are in general agreement that sequential lineup procedures are less likely to put innocent people in prison. Every peer reviewed study on the topic bears out this finding. A meta-analysis (PDF) was conducted by leading psychologists to extrapolate the comparative accuracy rates of the two types of procedures, and the clear finding was that sequential lineups are far less likely to result in an innocent person being identified. When “moderator variables” are considered, the two methods are also largely equivalent in their likelihood of bringing about a correct selection of the actual perpetrator, when he is present in the lineup. The general consensus among scientists is that “sequential lineups are superior.”

To the extent that there is disagreement on this point, it is not a disagreement among scientists or any sort of conflict in empirical findings. Rather, it is an objection by prosecutors at the audacity of scientists who dare to suggest that science should inform criminal justice policy. After all, the Chicago Police Department has been doing lineups for decades. Who are these scientists to tell them their procedures are flawed? It’s like a bunch of M.D.s telling cigarette manufacturers that smoking causes cancer.

So the Illinois Report manages yet again to avert attention from the uncontroverted findings of social scientists, namely that sequential lineups are less likely to result in wrongful convictions. To characterize the status of the debate as “not yet resolved” is to fall prey to the prosecutorial agenda to resist reform at any cost; it’s tantamount to concluding that the smoking/cancer link has yet to be established because Philip Morris executives find that fact to be in conflict with their profit motive. Except that it’s a little less clear what interest is being protected by the prosecutors who resist lineup reforms, since presumably they share the interest in prosecuting actual criminals, while protecting the innocent.

The other problem with the Chicago Tribune’s framing of the debate on lineup reform is the myopia with respect to the simultaneous-vs.-sequential question. The fact is, the recommendation that lineups be presented one person at a time rather than all at once is a single bullet point amongst a long list of recommendations to make lineup procedures more reliable. To borrow some words from eyewitness researcher Gary Wells:

[L]et’s not become myopic because of the sequential lineup. Let’s not forget that we need to institute a broad range of improvements to lineup procedures that make the terms “biased procedure” and “motions to suppress based on suggestive procedures” mere memories from the past. I continue to be amazed as to why prosecutors are not at the forefront of this effort to jettison suggestive procedures. Do prosecutors like to have these “motion to suppress identification” hearings? Of course not. Would not prosecutors prefer to have cleaner identifications to carry forward to trial? Of course they would. Are prosecutors at the forefront of efforts to: (1) improve instructions to witnesses, (2) select better fillers for lineups, (3) implement procedures that eliminate influence from the lineup administrator, (4) assess eyewitness certainty in an unbiased manner, (5) make sure that full records are kept? The answers are (1) no, (2) no, (3) no, (4) no, (5) no. I apologize to my prosecutor friends in Clinton, Iowa, in New Jersey, and in other places who are clear exceptions to this characterization of prosecutors not assuming leadership roles on identification issues. Still, the failure of law enforcement to significantly improve their lineup procedures is primarily because prosecutors have not pressed for these improvements.

With 27 wrongful convictions revealed by the Innocence Project in Illinois alone — 19 of which resulting from faulty eyewitness evidence — you’d think Illinois prosecutors would be eager to put themselves at the forefront of the reform effort, rather than fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve status quo procedures with a long track record of failure.

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