It is easier to confirm that a crime has been committed than to identify and prove the culprits or the suspects who have committed the crime. The American criminal justice system finds it hard to identify and convict the suspects who have committed serious felonies when the victims and members of the public fail to identify the suspects and testify in court. In such situations, the American criminal justice system has been compelled to depend on the DNA profiling and testimonies provided by the eyewitnesses to identify, prosecute and convict the suspects. Although the criminal justice system depend on the eyewitnesses’ account and evidence to identify suspects, empirical studies reveal that the misidentification of criminals accounts for about 75% of the wrongful convictions in the country (Samaha, 2014).
In most cases, the law enforcement agencies employ the lineup and show- up strategies to enable the witnesses to identify the suspects who have committed certain crimes. While using the live lineup procedure, the witness is required to identify the real suspect or culprit from the fillers (other suspects). Apart from using the live lineup technique, the American law enforcement agencies use the photographic lineup strategy where the witnesses are supposed to match the picture of the suspect. The photographic line up strategy is similar to the show- up technique as the witness is required to match the picture of the suspect.
However, the process of identifying suspects through the lineup identification procedure is a tedious and vigorous exercise that requires the witnesses to be adequately prepared by the law enforcement officials. As a move to achieve this goal, the officials provide the witnesses with pre-lineup instructions, which help to reduce the level of misidentification of suspects. Empirical studies affirm that the law enforcement officials are allowed to provide the witnesses with cues, which enable them to identify the suspect from the fillers thus reducing the misidentification rate. During the lineup exercise, the officials may utter statements such as “look at the photos carefully,” “be careful” and “observe keenly,” which help the witnesses to identify the suspect accurately. In certain instances, the official may state that the suspect might be present or absent in the lineup; an aspect that compels the witness to be analytical and careful when identifying the suspect.
A study done by Nancy (2004) affirmed that the inclusion of the statement that a suspect may be present or absent in a line up exercise reduced the misidentification rate, especially in situations where the suspects were not present (Roberts, 2008). The provision of the pre-line up instructions enhances validity, reliability and accuracy of the outcome because it helps the witnesses to integrate “absolute judgment” in the identification process. In this case, it infers that the witnesses have an opportunity to involve their memories to compare the pictures and the stored information about the suspect thus improving efficiency and accuracy of the whole process. Based on this assertion, it is clear that pre-lineup instructions play an integral role in enhancing efficiency, effectiveness and accuracy of the identification process.
The show-up identification procedure shares similar aspects with the lineup identification procedure, but both procedures are different. Unlike in the lineup procedure where the witness is supposed to identify the suspect from the fillers, the show-up procedure requires the witnesses to match and compare the suspect with another person -who is presented in the courtroom or through a mug picture. In other words, the witness is presented with mug photos in a sequential manner so that to identify the suspect accurately. However, the show-up identification procedure is faced with several challenges, which reduces its efficiency and accuracy thus leading to misidentification. A high level of stress, anxiety and trauma may affect the witness to make the right decision during the identification procedure. Documented studies reveal that stressful situations such a rape, murder and robbery with violence reduces one’s ability to observe and retrieve information accurately thus affecting the identification process. Researchers have also established that memory failure is another problem that affects the show-up identification procedure. The human memory encodes and interprets the information differently thus making it hard for one to internalize all the information at once. In most cases, people tend to ignore minor details about the suspect because the brain only encodes and retrieves important information. As a result, the witness is unable to identify the suspect correctly when asked by the court to do so. Therefore, the show-up identification process is faced with many challenges, which influence the outcomes, validity and reliability of the entire procedure.
The Constitution is the supreme law that promotes justice by ensuring that the rights of the defendant are not violated during the identification procedures. The provision of the constitution stipulates that the eyewitness identification procedures should be scrutinized effectively to reduce wrongful convictions and the rate of misidentification. The Fifth Amendment of the American Constitution grants the defendant the right to refuse to participate in an identification procedure that amounts to self-incrimination. In other words, the law enforcement officials cannot force the defendant to provide his fingerprints, as means to gather facts and evidence to prosecute the suspect. Such a move violates the provisions of the American Constitution, especially the Sixth and Fifth Amendments. However, the court may grant the law enforcement officials the permission to use force to compel the defendant to cooperate in the identification process, especially when such evidence is imperative.
The Constitution accords the defendant the right to have a defense lawyer, especially when post-indictment trials and formal charges have been confirmed and filed in the court of law (Roberts, 2008). In such a scenario, the police officers should notify the defendant’s counsel when the live lineup exercise will take place in order to ensure that the identification process is conducted effectively and rights and privileges of the defendant are safeguarded. However, the Constitution does not grand the defendant the right to have a defense lawyer present when the police are conducting their routine lineup and show-up procedures because it is unnecessary. Therefore, the Constitution grants and deprives the defendant certain rights and privileges, but this depends on the method used to identify the suspect.
Empirical studies have revealed that the process of identifying suspects through the eyewitness account is marked with numerous challenges and errors thus rendering it ineffective in promoting justice. As a result, the legal experts have proposed several reforms, which courts can implement to enhance reliability, validity and accuracy of an eyewitness identification procedure. The legal experts have proposed that there is a need to embrace “double-blind approach” when undertaking the lineup and show-up identification procedures (Yarmey, 2003). This move will prevent suggestive identification because a witness and the law enforcement official will not know the real suspect. In the same breath, this move will prevent the law enforcement officials to provide the witness with cues, which may lead to suggestive identification. Although the reform is imperative, the researchers fear that its implementation may increase the rate of misidentification in the country. This means that the law enforcement officials will not give the witnesses relevant cues to help them identify the suspect correctly. The legal experts have echoed that there is a need to avoid using different identification procedures because it tends to confuse the witnesses thus violating the due process. Based on this assertion, it is evident that there is the need to reform the eyewitness identification process to enhance validity, accuracy and reliability of this procedure.
Samaha, J. (2014). Criminal Procedure. New York: Cengage Learning.
Roberts, A. (2008). Pre-Trial Defence Rights and the Fair Use of Eyewitness Identification Procedures. Modern Law Review, 71(3), 331-357.
Yarmey, A. D. (2003). Eyewitness Identification: Guidelines and Recommendations for Identification Procedures in the United States and in Canada.. Canadian Psychology/Psychologie canadienne, 44(3), 181-189.