When the DOJ Says It, Jurors Listen

A study was published a couple of years ago that tested juror reactions to information suggesting that police had failed to follow best practices in conducting eyewitness lineup procedures. (I haven’t found the text online, but here’s the cite: J.M. Lampinen et al., The reactions of mock jurors to the Department of Justice Guidelines for the collection and preservation of eyewitness evidence, 27 Basic and Applied Soc. Psychol. 155 (2005)).

The study used a set of mock trial transcripts, which were adapted from a real robbery case, in which a man was described as having robbed a convenience store while wearing a “makeshift” mask, and who told store employees that he had a gun and was “not afraid to use it.” Three witnesses testified against the defendant — one who claimed to have seen the perpetrator from about 40 feet away outside the store, as he removed his mask, a police officer who was inside the store during the robbery, and a friend of the defendant who testified that the defendant had a gambling problem and owed a lot of money, thereby establishing motive. The first witness selected the defendant from a photo array, after which charges were filed.

The researchers tested three different conditions, using the same facts — in the first (control) condition, a trial transcript was provided to mock jurors including no mention of police errors in conducting the lineup procedure. In the second condition, two police errors relating to lineup procedures were mentioned, which were subsequently brought up by the defense. In the third, the same two police errors were mentioned, and the defense attorney not only highlights them, but also points out that they violate the Department of Justice Guide for Law Enforcement on Eyewitness Evidence (PDF). Aside from these modifications, the underlying transcripts were identical.

From the second condition:

Q. Officer Jacobs, I want to now ask you about the lineup which you showed to Ms. Wilcox.
A. Okay.
Q. Officer Jacobs, did you ever inform Ms. Wilcox that the culprit may or may not be in the lineup?
A. I don’t believe so.
Q. Don’t you believe it would have been a good idea to let the witness know that she didn’t have to pick somebody?
A. In my experience, things like that don’t make any difference.
Q. Officer Jacobs, Mr. Martinez has a mole on his left cheek, did any of the other photographs you showed Ms. Wilcox have a mole?
A. No.
Q. Aren’t you afraid that would make Mr. Martinez stand out?
A. No sir I wasn’t. In my experience, witnesses either recognize someone or they don’t.

And then from the condition in which the procedures used were contrasted with DOJ best practices:

Q. Officer Jacobs, I want to now ask you about the lineup which you showed to Ms. Wilcox.
A. Okay.
Q. Officer Jacobs, did you ever inform Ms. Wilcox that the culprit may or may not be in the lineup?
A. I don’t believe so.
Q. Don’t you believe it would have been a good idea to let the witness know that she didn’t have to pick somebody?
A. In my experience, things like that don’t make any difference.
Q. Officer Jacobs, are you familiar with the Department of Justice guidelines that were recently published entitled “Eyewitness Evidence: A Guide for Law Enforcement”?
A. I’ve heard of them.
Q. And are you aware that they state that the investigating officer should make clear to the witness that the culprit may or may not be in the lineup?
A. No I wasn’t.
Q. Alright Officer Jacobs, Mr. Martinez has a mole on his left cheek, did any of the other photographs you showed Ms. Wilcox have a mole?
A. No.
Q. Aren’t you afraid that would make Mr. Martinez stand out?
A. No sir I wasn’t. In my experience, witnesses either recognize someone or they don’t.
Q. I see, well were you aware, Officer Jacobs, that the Department of Justice guidelines state that the suspect should not stand out as being different from the
other members of the lineup?
A. No I wasn’t.

The same tactics were echoed in closing arguments.

The result?

Mock jurors in the DOJ condition (a) voted to convict at a lower rate, (b) rated the eyewitness as less credible, (c) rated the investigating officer as less professional, and (d) were more likely to opine that the investigating officer had thereby jeopardized the prosecution’s case.

Just as interesting was the fact that raising problems with the ID procedures on cross and again in closing produced no fewer convictions than the condition in which the errors were never mentioned at all.

The moral? Juries listen when they learn that police violated practices set forth by an authoritative source. They pay less mind when the source is a defense lawyer.

UPDATE: I should mention, as has been mentioned to me, that the results of this study should not be taken to invoke a sort of fatalism in those cases where introduction of the DOJ guidelines, or some other authoritative source, is not permitted or otherwise possible. A cursory look at the study shows that the second condition by no means involved a properly developed cross of a cop on a flawed ID procedure, and the lack of difference in conviction rate between the first two conditions should certainly not be taken to mean that it isn’t worthwhile to wage a full scale attack on bad IDs, even when you can’t get authoritative best practices in front of the jury. The silent lesson from the study might just be that your cross shouldn’t look like the one in condition #2.

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