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How to Increase Accuracy of Eyewitness Identifications

A new study released Monday contains interesting findings related to eyewitness identifications and provides suggestions as to how law enforcement can increase their accuracy. This is currently a hot issue among criminal defense attorneys in Houston and everywhere. As this blog previously noted, several new studies suggest that of the 75,000 eyewitness identifications made every year, about a third are wrong.

The new study – which was conducted at police departments in Austin, Texas, Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tucson Arizona – concluded that identifications are far more reliable where witnesses are asked to look at suspects individually, rather than in a group (read the New York Times article or the Christian Science monitor article ) Also, the study concluded, identifications should be made under circumstances where neither the police officer nor the witness know if the actual suspect is included in the set of individual photographs (so called “double blind”). This reduces the possibility that the witness will feel the need to identify somebody and the possibility that the police officer will act suggestively and somehow indicate who he believes is the suspect. Criminal defense lawyers know that unfortunately, the procedure outlined in the study is currently not in practice in Houston, or in most parts of Texas.

Criminal defense lawyers know that with regard to eyewitness identifications, there is no correlation between certainty and accuracy. In other words, although a witness may be 100 percent certain in his belief in the accuracy of his identification of a suspect, and yet be totally wrong. Although our understanding of eyewitness identifications is improving, there is still a huge possibility of misidentifications, and that is why we hope police departments take the study’s recommendations seriously.