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Study finds police photo lineups are unreliable

By Pat Reavy | Posted - Oct 26th, 2011 @ 9:05pm

SALT LAKE CITY — In today's age of forensic evidence, DNA and CSI, it would be easy to forget that police still rely on the old-fashioned photo lineup.

Investigators will still ask victims to look at several people in photographs to see if their perpetrator is among them.

But a recent study by the American Judicature Society questions the reliability of eyewitness identification techniques used by some police departments. In light of a growing number of people nationwide having their convictions overturned because of DNA evidence trumping alleged eyewitness identification, the study suggests many law enforcement agencies need to make changes on how they conduct police lineups.

In light of a growing number of people nationwide having their convictions overturned because of DNA evidence trumping alleged eyewitness identification, the study suggests many law enforcement agencies need to make changes on how they conduct police lineups.

Among the study's findings: Lineups, photo or live, should be conducted with one alleged perpetrator at a time rather than a group of them at once; and a detective who doesn't even know the identity of the actual suspect should conduct the lineup.

Local defense attorney Greg Skordas thought the results of the survey were excellent.

"It makes perfect sense," he said.

The study found that witnesses who look at several mug shots at the same time are more likely to compare the six perpetrators with each other, while witnesses who looked at mug shots individually tended to pick the person that most resembled the perpetrator in their memory.

The study recommended that the witness should make a decision on each individual before they are shown the next mug shot. It also suggested "the use of laptop computers for administering the lineup and recording the witnesses responses."

Unified Police Lt. Justin Hoyal, a former member of the Major Crimes Unit, said his department today uses almost exclusively photo lineups and uses the one-by-one method. Investigators try to find six individual mug shots of people who are all very similar in age, race, hair color, hair styles and weight and have a witness view each of them.

The study also suggested that an officer who has no idea who the alleged perpetrator is should conduct the lineup. It's a procedure known as a double-blind lineup.

The study was based on real witnesses at police stations in San Diego, Calif., Austin, Texas, Tucson, Ariz., and Charlotte, N.C.

Getting police to refine their system of lineups is nothing new. According to a 2002 USA Today article, the New York based Innocence Project, which specializes in using DNA testing to overturn convictions of innocent people, found mistaken IDs by witnesses played a role in 60 of the group's first 82 exoneration cases of 2001.

An article published by the National Institute of Justice told the story of a 22-year-old man who was identified by two witnesses in a police lineup in 1981 and later convicted in court of robbing, kidnapping and raping a woman. Jerry Miller served 24 years in prison before being paroled as a sex offender.

In 2007, DNA evidence showed Miller couldn't have committed the crime and he was exonerated.


In a recent article in the Indianapolis Star, 26-year-old Carlos Star spent 11 months in jail after being wrongly picked out of a photo lineup. Police were looking for a man in a red shirt who committed a robbery and shooting.

In a prior misdemeanor arrest, Star was wearing a red shirt in his mug shot. Three of five witnesses picked Star as the suspect, even though he was picked up by police on the day of the crime wearing a black shirt. The two other witnesses picked the only other man in the photo lineup of six men that was wearing a red shirt, who ended up being the real suspect.

Skordas agreed it was a good idea to eliminate the possibility of an officer unintentionally giving off clues either by clearing his throat or speaking louder when the photo of the real suspect is presented to a witness or by some other body language.

"I think cops absolutely try to be professional about it. But I don't think you can help yourself at times," he said.

Skordas said he has never heard of case where a police officer went out of their way to give a witness strong enough hints that the identity of a suspect was given away.

He said he had heard of "goofy" cases including an incident in which the backdrop of a suspect's photo was a different color than the other photos and another case where the suspect's photo was color and the others black and white. But those cases were from many years ago and very rare.

The idea of having a double-blind lineup, he said, is fantastic.

Hoyal said he has never seen any officer in his career conduct an illegal lineup by giving off body language hints to a witness, even when the officer knows they've picked the wrong person.

"You always hope they pick out the suspect that did it. If they can't, you just go back and do more investigating on it," he said. "I've never seen anyone hint or lead a suspect in their lineup. If that came out, you'd be eaten alive in court. You've got to be fair to the suspect as well."

Hoyal said typically when he is done with a photo lineup, he will tell the witness "thank you" without telling the person if they did or didn't pick the alleged perpetrator and without any expression.

"I wouldn't tell them right or wrong off the bat. I would tell them later," he said.

In some incidents, particularly high profile cases, investigators have had to scramble to get a photo lineup to a witness before the media gets hold of a perpetrator's mugshot and broadcasts it.

Paul Cassell, a University of Utah law professor and former federal judge, said miscarriages of justice from lineups are rare, and expects the technique will be with us for a long time.

But Skordas says lineups have become less important because of the advances in forensics. A witness can spot a person that looks similar, he said. But if DNA evidence is collected at the scene, that will ultimately be more reliable in court.

Pat Reavy

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