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Editorial: Witness identification system needs reform

Updated: November 4, 2011 9:07AM

It’s an impressive moment in any trial when the victim points to the defendant and says: “That’s the one who did it.”

Juries often don’t doubt the witness, and they go on to convict the defendant. Problem is, the victim is often wrong.

In fact, eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, according to the Innocence Project, which works to free innocent people who have been sent to prison. Of 273 convictions that have been overturned because DNA showed authorities had the wrong person, eyewitnesses had pointed to the wrong person 75 percent of the time, the Innocence Project says.

The percentage of wrong identifications is even higher for cases of sexual assault, according to the Center on Wrongful Convictions.

On Wednesday, New Jersey’s top court took some steps to protect innocent people from being wrongfully accused. Those reforms and more are needed in Illinois, which lags behind New Jersey in this area.

The court in New Jersey ruled that when a defendant can show some evidence that police influenced whom eyewitnesses picked out in a lineup, a pretrial hearing must be held to examine just what happened. The court also ordered that a system be developed to better explain to juries the potential flaws with eyewitness identifications.

Illinois would do well to adopt those rules, as well as other sensible procedures for eyewitness identifications.

Among the reforms Illinois should adopt are:

† A “double-blind” system in which the police officer conducting a lineup or photo identification session doesn’t know the identity of the suspect. Double-blind tests are used in other areas, such as medical research, to prevent those conducting tests from deliberately or unconsciously tilting the results. Police need to do the same.

† Sequential photo lineups. When police show a victim an array of photographs all at once, the victim tends to pick one, even if it only resembles the suspect. And a review conducted by a retired New Jersey Appellate Division judge found that witnesses are likely to stay committed to the first mug shot they pick, even if it is of the wrong person. Showing mug shots one by one would help protect against that.

† Electronic recording of the entire identification procedure. Typically, victims’ confidence in their identifications grows over time, especially if police or prosecutors tell witnesses there is additional evidence, such as a confession, which gives witnesses a false memory of certainty. If the procedure is recorded, any doubts expressed by a witness at the time of the identification could be taken into account later by judges or juries.

In one Illinois case, Robert Wilson served nearly 10 years in prison for a 1997 attempted murder after a woman was slashed at a South Side bus stop. The victim, June Siler, picked out Wilson’s photo from an array of five mug shots, even though at age 41 he was almost double the age of her original description.

Although a prosecutor said Siler was a “very, very strong witness at trial” for the prosecution, she later recanted her identification. She also said she originally had told police that Wilson looked too old, but that they coaxed her into identifying him. Wilson was freed in 2006.

When the Legislature reconvenes, witness identification reform should be near the top of its agenda.

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