Since 1992, 194 people have been exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence, and some 75 percent of the convictions involved at least one faulty eyewitness identification, according to the Innocence Project, which works to clear those who are falsely imprisoned. A separate study published by the University of Michigan in 2004 found that 90 percent of mistakes that led to false convictions in rape cases were caused by eyewitness errors.
"The way the [procedure] is now, it's easy to pick somebody out that's not involved," says Michael Moore, a private investigator in Cairo, Ga.
To minimize errors, the new bills in the five states propose that police must employ a "blind" lineup administrator, who in a small town could be a retired police officer or even a barber. This person would not know anything about the case, and therefore would be unable to influence the witness, for example, to "take another look at No. 5." Also the measures would replace the lineup in which people or photos are shown side by side with a procedure where suspects are shown one at a time. This "blind sequential lineup" strategy reduces "relative discrimination" in which witnesses identify somebody who looks most like the perpetrator out of a group, researchers say.
"Let's learn the lessons not only about the fallibility of eyewitness identification, but also of the ... research that shows how to eliminate the inadvertent suggestiveness of traditional police lineup procedures," says Stephen Saloom, policy director at the Innocence Project in New York.
In recent years, research has showed that blind sequential photo lineups produce half as many mistakes as the traditional "parade" of suspects, but they also result in 3 percent fewer total identifications.
But the blind sequential photo lineup resulted in more false identifications when it was employed in Illinois in the squad rooms of Chicago, Joliet, and Evanston in 2005. Using this method, witnesses made positive identifications 62 percent of the time; the sequential method yielded identifications 53 percent of the time, according to a study by the Illinois attorney general.