Report Examines Simultaneous and Sequential Lineup Methods

The American Judicature Society ("AJS") issued a report in September, 2011, "A Test of Simultaneous v. Sequential Lineup Methods:  An Initial Report of the AJS National Eyewitness Identification Field Studies," which compared double-blind field-testing results of simultaneous lineups against sequential lineups.  The report follows the first-phase of a multiple-phase examination of eyewitness identifications; a second-phase report, being prepared by the Police Foundation, will follow in 2012.  The primary authors of the AJS report, scientists Gary L. Wells, PhD, of the AJS Center for Forensic Science & Public Policy, Nancy K. Steblay PhD, of Augsburg College, and Jennifer E. Dysart, PhD, of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, concluded that sequential lineup procedures "should catch fewer innocent suspects in its net."

 Specific protocols, with the assistance of scientists, police, defense lawyers and prosecutors, were developed, and laptop computers -- with a specifically-designed program assigning randomly-chosen photos -- were utilized to ensure that lineups followed protocol, witness responses were reliably recorded, accurate recording of the length of time for a witness to make an identification, the photos used in a viewing could be preserved, the order of photos would be randomly chosen, police officers would be required to systema-tically record witness and event variables.  By ensuring the above through the use of the laptops, prosecutors, judges, juries and defense counsel could be more confident that the procedures were fairly administered.
 The report noted that in the 1990s the legal system began to take the issue of mistaken identifications more seriously than it had in the past.  The Innocence Project in New York, founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld, began the first systematic process to challenge convictions by means of forensic DNA testing.  Notably, of the approximately 273 exonerations to date, about 75% involved mistaken eyewitness identifica-tions.  The report stated that only a small number, less than 5%, of eyewitness identification cases involve biological evidence available for testing.  As a result, "the criminal justice system is still heavily dependent on eyewitness identification evidence and therefore im-proving the reliability of eyewitness identification evi-dence remains an important goal."

 Sequential lineups were developed in lab studies in 1985.  it was thought that sequential lineups would reduce a witness' tendency to use "relative judgments" in making identifications decisions.  In such a decision-making process the witness tends to compare lineup participants one to the other and then to the witness' memory of the perpetrator; the potential problem with that technique is that "someone will always look more like the perpetrator than the other members of the lineup, even when the lineup does not contain the perpetrator." Sequential lineups are designed "to prevent witnesses from merely comparing one lineup member to other lineup members (a relative judgment) and instead to compare each lineup member to their memory of the perpetrator and make an "absolute" judgment."

 Four police departments participated: Charlotte-Mecklenburg (North Carolina), Tucson, (Arizona), San Diego (California), and Austin (Texas).  855 lineups were conducted across the four sites.  Of those, 358 were excluded from the final results, due either to the lineup administrator knowing which individual was the suspect (and, therefore, not a double-blind sample), the witness was familiar with the suspect, the witness' responses could be ascertained, or the witness had encountered the suspect or the suspect's photo sometime before the testing.  The remaining 497 lineups, in cases involving simple assault to murder, were "the core set of lineups for the central analyses ... double-blind lineups from witnesses who were attempting to identify a stranger and who were seeing the suspect's photo for the first time."

 Simultaneous lineup procedures resulted in overall identification of the suspect in 25.5% of the lineups; the sequential procedures resulted in identification of the suspect in 27.3% of the lineups.  The small difference was not considered to be statistically significant.  However, simultaneous procedure lineups resulted in identification of 'filler' photos at a rate of 18.1%, and sequential lineup procedures resulted in 'filler' photos being identified at a rate of 12.2%.  A further analysis of those cases where identifications were made revealed that in simultane-ous procedure lineups, 58.4% of the identifications were of the suspect and 41.6% of the identifications were of a filler photo.  In sequential lineup cases, the identification of the suspect was at a rate of 69.1%, and identification of the filler was at a rate of 30.9%.

 There was further contrast between the two types of procedures in the cases where the witness made no identification.  In the simultaneous lineup procedure cases, 80.8% of the non-identifications by the witnesses were "clear rejections" ("no", as opposed to "not sure"), with 19.2% of the witnesses being not sure.  In the sequential lineup procedure cases, 53.5% were clear rejections, and 46.5% of the witnesses were not sure.  The suspect's photo was included in 28.8% of those cases where a participant in a sequential lineup proce-dure was not sure; the authors considered that 28.8% figure significant for law enforcement, because a "not sure" response does not rule-out a suspect.  The authors also concluded from the above results that "those using the sequential procedure were not only less likely to identify a filler and just as effective in identifying the suspect, but also less likely to reject the lineup altogether when they did not make an identification."

 The authors noted that sequential identification procedures reduced mistaken identifications in comparison to simultaneous lineup procedures; however, there still was a "filler" identification, or mistaken identification, in about 31% of the sequential lineup cases.  Eyewitness scientists will continue examining additional factors, including whether or not weapons were involved, whether the witness was a victim or bystander, witness certainty about identifications made, lighting conditions during the offense, the duration of the offense, the lapse of time between the crime and the identification, and cross-racial factors.

Sources:  American Judicature Society:  http://www; AJS Report: WID_PrintFriendly.pdf

by Neil Leithauser
Associate Editor