Sometimes, a simple change in how government works can make a big difference. That's the message this month from the Florida Innocence Commission, the group appointed by the state Supreme Court that is examining how erroneous convictions happen. Its first official recommendation: change the procedure for conducting suspect lineups to reduce the likelihood of eyewitness mistakes. All Florida law enforcement should welcome the advice.
Eyewitness testimony is powerful evidence in court, despite being one of the least reliable forms of proof. Iowa State University professor Gary Wells, an expert on the reliability of eyewitness identification, told the commission that 77 percent of known erroneous convictions nationwide were a result of misidentifications. The nonprofit Innocence Project of Florida has found that faulty eyewitness statements contributed to the convictions of 10 of 13 people later exonerated with DNA testing.
When viewing either a live lineup or photographs, witnesses can tend to select the person who most closely matches the perpetrator, even when the actual perpetrator is not part of the lineup.
To combat this, the Innocence Commission has adopted voluntary lineup standards for state and local law enforcement. Some procedures will require more resources — a fact that some law enforcement officials had claimed was reason to oppose such standards. But compliance is cheap compared to the cost to society of convicting an innocent person and leaving the real criminal at large.
The key to keeping unconscious influences out of the lineup process is to have someone who does not know the identity of the suspect conduct the lineup. This should be standard practice. But the commission was sensitive to policing agencies without the means to use an independent administrator for lineups. In those cases, the commission recommended displaying photographs in such a way that the officer conducting the lineup cannot tell which ones are being viewed by the witness.
Wells also recommends that lineups be done by displaying individuals one at a time, rather than simultaneously, to prevent the urge by witnesses to pick the person who looks most like the perpetrator. The commission did not go that far. Instead it said witnesses must be instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup, and that the investigation will continue even if an identification is not made.
Also, for photo lineups, the commission recommended that contemporary photographs be used of people with similar features to the suspect's description.
During the last legislative session, state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a commission member, passed a bill in the Senate incorporating many of these recommendations, but it stalled in the House. State law enforcement, police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecuting attorneys opposed the bill.
But police need to do a better job at filtering out faulty eyewitness identification. The Tampa Police Department changed its photo lineup policy to a blind one this month to remove "any possibility of advertent influence." Now the Florida Innocence Commission has provided a simple road map for other departments to do the same. The goal of law enforcement must always be to arrest the correct person, not just the one an eyewitness might settle on.