- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Eyewitness identification of criminal suspects is a valuable tool for law enforcement, Sheriff Gary Raney said, but it’s not foolproof. If handled improperly, it can harm a criminal investigation more than it helps.

Raney has taken a leadership role to help educate police agencies throughout Idaho on the best practices and procedures for suspect lineups. They remain a valuable resource for investigators, he said, but they have to be done right.

“There’s increasingly compelling evidence about the unreliability of eyewitness identification in photo lineups and show-ups and things like that,” Raney said. “In law enforcement, we’ve been trying to establish much better procedures about how to show a photo lineup so we don’t have false identifications.”

Raney offers the example of Ronald Cotton, a man convicted in of rape in North Carolina based on the eyewitness testimony of the victim, Jennifer Thompson, who was certain she’d pointed out the right man. Over a decade later, DNA evidence proved Cotton’s innocence. Now, Cotton and Thompson tour together, giving talks on the importance of proper eyewitness identification procedures.

It’s precisely those issues that a new report - released this month by the National Academy of Sciences - hopes to address. The report offers guidance for standards, training and best practices for police agencies as they conduct lineups.

At issue is the eyewitnesses themselves, according to Idaho Innocence Project Director Greg Hampikian, though they may not even realize it. The problem is not that they are dishonest or untrustworthy, he said. It’s that human perception and memory are inherently less reliable than most people tend to think.

“We’re learning a lot about the science of memory,” Hampikian said. “Memory is so malleable or volatile that each time we see something, the memory is actually influenced and re-created.”

That means it’s not like a video playback that’s identical every time it runs - the witness might subtract, add or change details every time a memory is accessed, Hampikian said.

So even if someone wasn’t actually present when the crime occurred, the witness might insert that person into their memories without even realizing it. It’s not that the witness’s memory is poor or flawed. It’s just the way human memory works.

And it’s not just the witnesses, Hampikian added - it’s also important that the interviewing officers don’t know who the actual suspect in the lineup is - or even if the suspect is in the lineup at all. If they do, they might hint via subtle, nonverbal cues - without even knowing they’re doing it - who the witness is “supposed” to pick.

That’s where training and procedures come in. It’s important for investigators to know how to phrase questions, Hampikian said - they can’t ask which face “looks most like” the person the witness saw. Instead, witnesses should be shown a number of faces that may or may not include the suspect - and asked if the person they saw is among them.

“We’ve found that officers want to do the right thing,” he said. “But if you give the instrument the wrong input, it’s going to work with what it’s given.”

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Information from: Idaho Press-Tribune, https://www.idahopress.com

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