Identifying the Lineup: A WAFF 48 News Special Report

Published: Aug. 11, 2011 at 1:41 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 7, 2011 at 9:42 PM CDT
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Imagine it... You are either a victim or witness of a crime, and you are called on to I.D. the suspect. Do you think you could? And could you be 100 percent sure the person you chose actually committed the crime?

A psychology professor at UA-Huntsville said it's not as easy as people think. And he will be conducting research over the next three years to compare the methods investigators use to get suspect identification.

My special assignment, "Looking at the Lineup," shows you how.

You've seen it in countless movies. A nervous witness struggles to identify a suspect in a crime. And just like on the big screen, that process in real life can be challenging.

Today there are two main methods investigators use to identify a suspect.

The first is the line up method, where suspects are presented in a line with a number to be identified.

And then there's the show up method. "The show up is what you see on the street. People drive by and a cop says, 'Is that the person?' and it's one person identification," said Dr. Jeffrey Neuschatz.

Dr. Neuschatz is a psychology professor at UA-Huntsville who has studied suspect identification for over 16 years. He says even though the show up method is most often used, there has been very little research on that method. He also says police use certain procedures during a lineup that they don't use in a show up.

"For example, in a lineup the best procedure is to tell someone you are about to see a series of pictures. The suspect may or may not be in the lineup, so the person feels it's ok for them to say 'no he is not there' or 'she is not there,'" said Dr. Neuschatz.

With the aid of his graduate students, he showed us what he means.

The students watch a short video that shows a fictitious crime being committed.

Both students were shown the same lineup, and both chose a different person. The catch is neither choice is the correct one because the person in the video was not in the lineup.

He also pointed to a case in Mississippi that he was consulted on: the state vs. Corrothers, which was a capital murder case.

"It stands out more when you hear the description given by the eyewitness that the person was wearing a white T-shirt and in this lineup the only person wearing a white shirt is Mr. Corrothers," Dr. Neuschatz said.

Corrothers was convicted of the crime. But Dr. Neuschatz said that was most likely a biased lineup, which he describes as a lineup where anyone can pick out the suspect based on the description without actually witnessing the crime.

Marc Scroggins is an investigator with the Madison Police Department that uses photo lineup about 99% of the time. They use a computer system that has pictures of everyone in the state with a drivers license and said great care goes into making sure their lineups are not biased.

"So if my suspect is a white female with brown hair, it's going to pull up her driver's license picture. All the other pictures it pulls up will be a white female with brown hair. And it will put their pictures up there. If my suspect happens to be wearing a white shirt, and that's what they were described in the crime, then I am going to attempt to find another driver's licenses where they are also wearing a white shirt," said Scroggins.

Rob Brussard is the Madison County D.A. He said these days with DNA technology, which they frequently have, eyewitness testimony is getting to be less and less of the lynchpin of the case.

"But there are those who would have you believe that eyewitness is absolutely flawed, that it is no good and it shouldn't be used, and that is absolutely ridiculous," said Brussard.

Recently, Dr. Neuschatz and two colleagues were awarded a grant to conduct their own research comparing line up versus show up methods, the ultimate goal being to identify the best practice that could be used in eyewitness identification.

"I think what we want people to realize is that making an eyewitness identification is not easy. That is not to say it is impossible, but it is not as easy as some people may think," said Dr. Neuschatz.

Copyright 2011 WAFF. All rights reserved.