More than two decades ago, a sexual-assault victim from Sandy Springs, Ga., pointed to a picture of her attacker in a photo lineup.
"From zero to 100 percent, how sure are you?" a detective asked.
"I'm 120 percent sure," the woman said, as stated in court testimony.
It now appears that she was 100 percent wrong, according to the Fulton County district attorney. The result of DNA testing led to the release of Willie "Pete" Williams on Jan. 23 after nearly 22 years in a south Georgia prison for a crime he did not commit. Her mistake and his exoneration have revived a debate about the accuracy of eyewitness identifications – and their central role in persuading juries to convict.
But even as a handful of police departments from Boston to Minneapolis have voluntarily changed lineup procedures to help reduce such tragic errors, resistance to top-down reform from the majority of American police chiefs and prosecutors is pushing the debate into the legislative chamber. Last week, Georgia introduced a bill that would scrap the side-by-side police lineup, and would instead require police departments to present suspects one by one – either in person or by photo. Georgia joins Texas, New Mexico, West Virginia, and Vermont, which have similar bills pending.
Some experts argue that the new procedure limits inaccurate "relative judgments" that victims can make during a lineup. But police counter that they do not want to be forced to use a specific procedure that they say would undermine proven techniques detectives use.
"You can start to see a move now in policymaking and the decisions that prosecutors are making about how they elicit evidence," says Professor Christian Meissner, director of the Investigative Interviewing Research Laboratory at the University of Texas at El Paso. "The involvement of legislatures is an attempt to get prosecutors to realize that these are real issues that need to be addressed."