Tulsa Attorney BlogAvoiding Wrongful Convictions in Oklahoma: Eyewitness Identification

Oklahoma eye witness identification After studying the currently known list of wrongful convictions in Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Justice Commission has made recommendations to help prevent further wrongful convictions. One of these areas of view, and the topic for today, is Eyewitness Identification.

What’s in a Lineup?

Before we can begin to discuss the recommendations of the Commission, first, we must established the difference between 3 very similar concepts: show-ups, line-ups, and photo line-ups. A show-up, is when the police bring a suspect to a witness for identification. A line-up is where the police bring forward several individuals for the witness to look (classically portrayed in the film “The Usual Suspects”). Finally, a photo line-up is a line-up that is conducted by showing an array of photos to the witness.

Now, as to the recommendations of the report, they mostly, these involve numerous suggestions for establishing policies regarding photo lineups and their administration, required training for the police on how to effectively enact these procedural changes, and amending jury instructions so that jurors are told exactly how an eyewitness identification could be bad. Now, when we are saying mostly, six (6) of the seven (7) pages of the recommendations are devoted to suggesting written procedures detailing how the photo line-up, the preferred method, is to be conducted. Everything from how the photos should be sorted (randomly shuffled), how many photos are required (a minimum of six (6) shown one at a time), who should be showing the photos to the witness, recording the exact words used by the witness, not looking at the photos with the witness, and avoiding any photos that distinctly highlight a single person. While each of these recommendations is valid and important, there is a deep sense in reading them that Oklahoma is behind the curve.

Eyewitness Identification Ain’t Rocket Science

For the past 20 plus years, scientists have studied the issue of eyewitness identification. Sadly, the results of these studies indicate a simple truth: Eyewitness Identifications can lead to a wrongful conviction. See, it’s not really rocket science, meaning, it’s not 100% exact and measured. Sometimes, eyewitnesses, try though they might, get details wrong. Sometimes big, sometimes small, the fact is things are mixed up. This can ranged from a number of factors, such as lack of sleep, intoxication, the lighting, fear, and distraction. Sometimes, the alleyway really was too dark to make out the attacker’s face. Sometimes, that gun being waved around becomes a lot more fascinating to look at, instead of the suspect’s features. The data is so firm that eyewitness identification isn’t entirely accurate each time, that in 1998, the American Psychology/Law Society issued specific suggestions to improve lineups, simply because there were holes found in the then system (See Eyewitness Identification Procedures: Recommendations for Lineups and Photospreads; Law and Human Behavior, Vol. 22, No. 6, 1998). These recommendations, such as double blind line-ups, advising the witness that the suspect may not be in the line-up, videotaping the session with the witness, having an independent administrator show the line-up, etc., seem to mostly find their way into the Commission’s recent recommendations in order to avoid wrongful convictions in Oklahoma.

It’s About Time

Delayed or not, the recommendations made by the Oklahoma Justice Commission are all excellent and valid. Furthermore, they should help to prevent future wrongful convictions in Oklahoma due to bad eyewitness identifications. See, the data available shows that, when a person is shown a line-up, they are left with an impression that the police caught the bad guy already. The witness then, just needs to point out the right picture. THERE IS A PSYCHOLOGICAL EXPECTATION THAT THERE IS A CORRECT ANSWER. Even if there isn’t a correct answer, the expectation is that one of the photos shown will have the suspect in it. This is why it becomes so important to explain that the perpetrator of the crime may or may not be in the line-up. This is also why it is important to have a blind line-up. A blind line-up is where the photos are mixed up, and then and independent administrator, who doesn’t know which one might be the suspect photo, shows the photos to the witness. There is a reduced chance of forcing an improper identification, a subliminal “is it THIS ONE?”, which might otherwise be introduced if the line-up administrator knows who the police have in mind.

This is also why photo line-ups are the absolute preferred method. A show-up highlights one individual. An individual that is usually handcuffed and sitting in the back of a police car. In that sort of scenario, instead of a question whether any of the choices may be correct or not, a show-up screams, “This is him, RIGHT?”. Furthermore, the separate showing of the photos is vital. By placing photos together, people automatically start comparing the photos to each other. By process of elimination, an eyewitness can come to a decision, simply because that is the person on the page who most looks like what the witness thinks, when compared to the other photos. This sort of comparative analysis becomes much harder when the photos are shown one at a time, requiring the witness to review each face fresh, with the least amount of elimination possible, because it is only one at a time. It limits another possible point of error.  In fact, the entire purpose of the Commission’s recommendations is to eliminate any error point which could lead to false identification, which in turn could lead to a wrongful conviction.

Free Consultation: Criminal Defense Attorneys in Tulsa

Ultimately, it is important to be aware of the possible problems with eyewitness identifications and how they may lead to a wrongful conviction. The Oklahoma Justice Commission should be applauded for making these recommendations, and urging the adoption of jury instructions explaining what could go wrong, so that jurors can make the best possible decisions about the reliability of an eyewitness. It’s also important for those that have been wrongfully accused to know of the options in front of them, in order to fight against such an accusation. As always, if you or someone you know has been accused of crime, please contact a criminal defense attorney immediately.

For a free consultation with a criminal defense attorney in Tulsa Oklahoma, call the Wirth Law Office at (918) 879-1681 (or toll free at (888) Wirth-Law) or submit the question form at the top right of this page.

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