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Bid for better ways to ID suspects

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It is one of the paradoxes of criminal justice: Eyewitness testimony isn't really the gold standard of proof that years of courtroom dramas have taught TV viewers to expect.

Faulty identification, for instance, played a role in the convictions of more than half of the death-row inmates exonerated since the death penalty was reintroduced, according to a 2001 study by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University in Chicago.

In 1999, the US Justice Department issued a guide calling for major changes in the way police ask eyewitnesses to identify criminal suspects. The message: the traditional lineup could be improved.

With more than 19,000 autonomous law-enforcement agencies spread throughout the country, however, introducing any wholesale procedural changes is usually difficult. But in New Jersey, the attorney general can unilaterally order police departments to change the way they operate.

So the Garden State, which introduced new procedures last October, is emerging as a proving ground for the new approach. The initial response from prosecutors is positive.

Under the old system, a row of suspects would stare blankly ahead as a witness tried to pick out the perpetrator. Or a crime victim would sift through a string of mug shots arrayed on a table.

Now, witnesses look at only a single suspect or mug shot at a time. And, where possible, the lineup is conducted by an officer not involved in the investigation; this helps ensure that police don't pressure a witness, subtly or otherwise, into fingering their own prime suspect.

In Dover Township, where a police force of 144 officers patrols a suburban community, Chief Michael Mastranarde says he didn't think his department's lineup procedures needed any fixing.

But a presentation last year for New Jersey police chiefs by Gary Wells, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University, helped convince Chief Mastranarde that the changes made sense. Wells's research found that witnesses confronted with a lineup where the actual culprit isn't present often pick the person who looks most like that culprit. When witnesses look at only one picture or witness at a time, however, "they have to dig deeper and make an absolute decision," Wells says.


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