When an eyewitness points their finger at a suspect, indicating that they are the culprit, it can be a powerful thing. But often, eyewitness identifications are wrong. In Virginia, 14 people have been exonerated by DNA evidence after their conviction—11 of the cases involved eyewitness misidentification.
In an effort to reduce misidentifications and ultimately wrongful convictions, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services has revised its model policy for eyewitness id’s and police lineups, drafting a plan that will make it clear to agencies across the state just how they are expected to handle such police work.
According to the website of the University Of Virginia School Of Law, the state first began looking at its policies in 2005. It was then that the General Assembly enacted a law requiring law enforcement agencies have written procedures, but the law didn’t indicate anything specific on how those procedures should go or what sort of policies were best when it came to eyewitness identifications and lineups.
Five years after the law was passed, the state did a survey among law enforcement agencies to see how the agencies were complying and what policies had been put in place. They found that departments were all over the place, using a variety of standards, with some having no formal policy at all.
“Although some big departments had good lineup procedures – like in Roanoke and Charlottesville – many others didn’t,” according to Virginia School of Law Professors and author of “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong” Brandon Garrett. “They found that about a third of departments still had no written policy at all.”
Because simply requiring departments to have a policy wasn’t enough, last November, the state drafted its own “model policy,” setting forth good practices to serve as an example for departments statewide. Also, Virginia police agencies will now be required to have written policies for lineups and eyewitness identifications following the guidelines of the model policy in order to pass their accreditation standards.
Judges, prosecutors, and definitely defense lawyers all know that eyewitness identification isn’t the foolproof piece of evidence that some people see it as. But it remains one of the most powerful pieces of evidence in a criminal case. There is just something convincing to juries in criminal trials and police when a witness fingers a suspect.
The new practices will help ensure those identifications are less likely to be flawed, though the potential for mistaken identity always exists.