Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Accuracy and Police Lineups


Many years ago a drunken houseguest of a homeowner down the block from my father's house went down the streets trying doorknobs, and stole items from houses which he discovered to be unlocked. He entered my father's house and came face-to-face with my brother. He fled, but was quickly picked up by the police with a significant number of stolen items.

On the date of his preliminary examination, my brother was asked to show up early and speak to the detective in charge of the case. I was asked to come in as well, as some of my belongings had been stolen. My brother was told that he might be asked to identify the defendant from a line-up. The detective asked my brother a series of questions about the defendant's appearance, and seemed to grow slightly more exasperated with each answer. He left for a few minutes then came back and informed my brother that the defendant had agreed to enter into a plea deal, and that no line-up would occur.

As we were leaving the detective's office we saw a man being taken to court in a jail jumpsuit. My brother said, "That's him." I looked at him and said, "He doesn't look anything like you said he looked." My brother replied, "I know. But it's him."

I remembered that story when reading TalkLeft's post about the Innocence Project's proposals to make line-ups more accurate. One aspect of the proposal:
Selecting lineup fillers according to the witness’s description of the perpetrator as opposed to based on their similarity to the police suspect, thereby lessening the chances that the suspect will stand out.
Had that been done in my brother's situation, the defendant would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

I think this highlights something that the proponents of this idea have overlooked, or perhaps have chosen to overlook. People are pretty good at recognizing faces that they have seen before. But that doesn't mean that they are particularly good at describing what somebody looked like. While a defense lawyer may have had fun with a description from my brother, and might have even been able to use it to impeach the line-up, that would not have made the defendant any less guilty. Realistically, it would probably have caused the police to cancel the line-up... which happened anyway. But, given that my brother was in fact able to accurately identify the defendant when he saw him, would that in fact benefit an innocent defendant?

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