NACDL’s Response to Ruling (Mostly) Denying Access to Illinois Lineup Data

July 2, 2008

Following yesterday’s ruling in Cook County, NACDL has offered its official response, which reads in part:

“The Court has dealt a blow to the public today. We will appeal the decision and continue to demand that the Chicago Police turn over all of the data and case files behind a report that contradicts vast amounts of research on lineup procedures,” said Scott Ehlers, state legislative director of NACDL, the plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We can’t conduct a thorough, scientific review of this information without access to all of the data used to reach the conclusions set forth in this report.”

The Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, of Northwestern University, had originally requested the data, but was met with silence.  From its director:

“The fact that this data will continue to remain a secret is shameful,” said Locke Bowman, legal director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center. “We will continue to do everything in our power to get access to this information.”

The court did order disclosure of a limited set of materials relating only to closed cases that were included in the study, but undermining any value to that ruling is the fact that the photos used in the arrays will be redacted, rendering it impossible to assess the reliability of the lineups themselves, notwithstanding the police procedures by which they were administered.

The results of the infamous Illinois/Mecklenburg “study” sent shockwaves through the community of social scientists who had studied the same questions for decades, primarily because the results were touted as showing that the status quo procedures — i.e., the procedures that led to the majority of the 54 documented wrongful convictions in Illinois alone — were actually superior, in direct contradiction to all other research on the topic.  Foul play was suspected, and since then the police department and its then-General Counsel Sheri Mecklenburg have refused to turn over the data and subject the study to actual peer review, as is required of actual scientific studies.

Leading eyewitness researcher Dr. Nancy Steblay also weighed in on the outcome:

“Legal evidence and public policy should be based on sound science. The Illinois Study has again failed to meet standards for scientific credibility,” said Nancy Steblay, expert of eyewitness identification procedures and professor at Augsburg College. “A Blue-Ribbon Panel of eminent scientists previously judged the study’s method to be fatally flawed and thereby incapable of answering its research question. Now the Chicago Police Department is unwilling to share the complete data necessary for evaluation of the study’s purported findings. It is time to set aside the Illinois study and to firmly reject the unsupported claims of its proponents.

Locke Bowman, legal director of the Roderick MacArthur Justice Center, summed it up succinctly:

Wrongful convictions in Illinois have been far too commonplace.  If the data supports the report’s findings that traditional lineups work better than reform methods, the Chicago Police have nothing to hide. But if the data doesn’t support those findings, it’s time for the Chicago Police Department and departments around the state to change the way they handle eyewitness identifications.

The Cook County judge’s decision is here (PDF).

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NACDL Denied Access to Chicago Sham Lineup Study Data

June 30, 2008

A state court in Illinois today just denied NACDL access to the data underlying the controversial Illinois/Mecklenburg Report on police identification procedures, which means the widely denounced results remain cloaked in secrecy.

NACDL has stated that they will appeal the decision. We’ll report further as we have more info.

UPDATE: More news coverage here. Of particular interest from the comments at the Chicago Tribune from an individual who claims first-hand experience with the way lineups are conducted:

Here is first hand knowledge of how this works.
About ten years ago while preforming my job, I notice two guys breaking into a house. It was doing a holiday season. Its a lot of detail so I will spare you all the descriptions.
About a month later I was called to go the courthouse and identify the robbers. One id at the scene, the other got away, but they did catch him later when the other guy squealed.
When I showed up at the courthouse, I was let upstairs to their lineup. Mind you it had been a month later when I got called to come to id the suspect. I couldremember curtains facts, like his height, what he wore and what he had on his head,I just had to see the person to be sure, once you see them your memory comes back. That being said, even though I could pick the guy out, here are some of the sehemes the cops used.
1 they bring in about 6 guys
2 five of them are laughing
3 the guilty one is always center with the brightest light on him
4 police suggest to you in certain ways to look closely at a suspect, even when you are sure.
5 when you pick out the one they suspect, expect a pat on the back.
That was my experience.

And then, with unintentional irony, from a user tagging him/herself “the truth,” this response:

“4 police suggest to you in certain ways to look closely at the suspect in the middle, even when you are sure.
5 when you have picked out the one they suspect, expect a pat on the back.
That was my experience. ”

So? The right guy went to jail. Sounds good to me.

Unfortunately, that’s exactly the problem with wrongful convictions, in which Illinois is second only to Texas: it’s always the police suspect who gets picked, but it’s not always the police suspect who committed the crime.  Unfortunately this “more convictions = more justice” mentality is all too common, and yet this is exactly the scenario that has sent the wrong people to prison in Illinois and across the country since the advent of the police lineup.

This is also exactly what reformists, like those seeking the data from this field study, are seeking to change — by implementing procedures that are specifically engineered to test the independent memory of witnesses, rather than sham procedures that merely rubber-stamp the suspicion of the police, who are in many cases simply wrong.


Another Flawed Lineup, Another Exoneration in Dallas County, and a Glimmer of Hope

April 16, 2008

Thomas Clifford McGowan Jr. has spent the last 23 years in prison because he was selected from a fundamentally flawed photo lineup, after his photo was collected from a traffic offense two days after a rape/burglary.

From the Dallas Morning News:

The 49-year-old would become the 16th Dallas County inmate to be cleared through DNA testing since 2001, the highest total for any county in the country. Like almost all of the other discredited convictions, Mr. McGowan’s was based primarily on the victim selecting his photograph from a police lineup.

The photo array from which the victim selected his photograph was a sloppy collection of black and white photos, color photos, and photocopies of photos. Not surprisingly, Mr. McGowan’s photo was a color original. Further, after the witness tentatively pointed to Mr. McGowan, the investigating officer insisted that the witness make a positive ID, rather than allowing her to describe her level of certainty in her own words.

Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project have worked for the year to free Mr. McGowan.

By not allowing the victim to describe her certainty in her own words, Mr. Scheck contended, Detective Corley implied Mr. McGowan was the attacker.

“I have no doubt that the officer wasn’t trying to do anything wrong here,” Mr. Scheck said. “It’s just a terrible, bad practice.”

Even the local prosecutors are beginning to agree that there is a systemic problem:

Dallas County prosecutor Mike Ware, who oversees the conviction integrity unit, said Tuesday that problems with photo lineups are “a common thread that runs through almost all of the wrongful conviction we’ve run across.”

The Dallas Morning News also reports that Mr. Ware is now publicly embracing the importance of mandatory double-blind lineup procedures for photo arrays, which is an important and significant development, at least to my knowledge. As we reported previously, Dallas County has been laying the groundwork for a field study on police lineups in a purported attempt to develop more reliable procedures, and until now there appeared to be reason for concern that the study would replicate the fundamentally flawed methodology of the now-infamous Illinois/Mecklenburg study that turned out to be little more than a rubber-stamping of the flawed status quo procedures that continue to cause innocent people to be put in prison.

Now, Mr. Ware is on record stressing the importance of double-blind procedures, which all social scientists (and reformers) have long agreed must be a component of any standard lineup procedure that hopes to reduce wrongful convictions.  Presumably this means that the Dallas study won’t repeat the futile endeavor of “testing” blind procedures against non-blind procedures, as was done in Illinois under the guidance of Sheri Mecklenburg, with the number of suspect picks as the measure of “reliability.”

This is big news on the eyewitness ID reform front.  We’ll try to stay on top of this as more information on the Dallas field study begins to surface.