Friday, April 6, 2012

Photo Line-Up Subject to Challenge

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The piece above ran on MSNBC this week on Rock Center. The program calls into serious question the reliability of the photo line-up, or "six-pack". The ten-minute segment focuses on Tim Cole, an African American Texas A & M student who was wrongfully convicted of aggravated rape in 1985. The only evidence against Mr. Cole was that he was chosen as a suspect in a photo line-up. He was placed in the photo line-up when a campus police officer decided that he resembled the composite drawing done by police. There was no other evidence against Mr. Cole yet he was convicted. Almost twenty years later, another man confessed to the rape which was confirmed by DNA but it was too late for Mr. Cole. He had passed away in prison as the result of a severe asthma attack after spending thirteen years of his twenty-five year sentence. He was posthumously exonerated by the State of Texas.

MSNBC has a photo montage test you can take on their website to get some idea of the reliability of a photo line up. Remember, however, that most people that are victims of crimes are undergoing an extremely stressful moment during the crimes which impacts the ability to recognize a person. Additionally, as noted in the MSNBC clip, the photo montage or any line up can be tainted by the police officers running the line up. If the officers have a certain "suspect" in mind, they may (accidentally or on purpose) project their preconceived notions on the victim. Eyewitness misidentification is the greatest cause of wrongful conviction and was at play in more than 75% of cases of individuals exonerated with DNA according to the Innocence Project. Both the MSNBC page and the Innocence Project have resources for challenging an eyewitness ID and suggestions on reform.

Options for investigating a case involving an eyewitness ID include getting an expert on reliability and memory including the reliability of the montage or creating your own montage. Additionally, it is important to get all discovery surrounding the montage including: why your person was selected to be placed in the montage to begin with, how the montage was created (software random selection or by officer selection), whether it was a "blind" montage meaning the officer conducting the show-up did not know anything about the "suspect" or the crime, and how many montages were shown to the suspect. Also if there is video or a recording of the victim selecting the suspect, that information is important. The circumstances of the line-up can be of critical importance including how long after the crime the line-up is happening, whether there has already been other "memory contamination", and whether there have been previous attempts of a line up before the "suspect" is picked.

In Mr. Cole's case, the victim tells MSNBC the horror she feels that she picked out the wrong person and she identifies the subtle police suggestion as a factor. The victim was highly motivated to pick out the correct suspect so that the horrible rape she experienced would not happen to someone else and her assailant would be punished. But it is exactly this pressure that can lead to a bad identification. Social scientists to study eyewitness identification issues note that there is tremendous pressure on the victim to pick the suspect and therefore they are extremely vulnerable to "clues" presented by law enforcement officers. Suggestions for reform include the "blind" test mentioned earlier and showing photos one at a time. Both of these methods have been shown to decrease the problems associated with eyewitness identification.

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