Psychologists and groups advocating for criminal justice reform in Florida and around the country have known for decades that eyewitness identifications can be extremely unreliable. According to the Innocence Project, approximately 71% of the wrongly convicted individuals exonerated by DNA evidence since 1989 were incarcerated because of mistakes made by eyewitnesses. The true perpetrators of these crimes went on to commit more than 100 violent offenses including 17 murders and 64 rapes. Witnesses who make mistakes rarely act maliciously, but their recollections may be influenced by police officers who are convinced they have the right suspect. Suspects placed in lineups are often represented by criminal defense attorneys, but police officers often speak to witnesses again when no lawyers are present.
Freed after decades in prison
This is what happened in a case involving a Louisiana man who was sentenced to a prison term of life without the possibility of parole after being found guilty of rape in 1980. During the trial, the victim told the jury that she was certain the man had been her attacker. However, police files reveal that the woman only became confident after speaking to detectives. Her initial identification, which was made following a lineup, was described as “tentative.” The man was exonerated in January 2018 after spending 38 years behind bars.
Florida lawmakers act
Florida is one of 25 states that have passed laws or implemented new regulations to prevent eyewitness misidentifications. Among the reforms introduced by the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act, which was passed in 2017, is a requirement for police departments to conduct what are known as double-blind identifications where the officer conducting the lineup does not know the identity of the suspect. Lawmakers decided to take action after groups including the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Academy of Sciences and the Florida Innocence Commission pointed out flaws in identification procedures and called for changes.
Asking for a lawyer
Many people believe that they can only request a lawyer after they have been arrested and charged with a crime. Experienced criminal defense attorneys could explain that the Sixth Amendment deals with the rights of the accused and not the charged, and they may encourage any person who is asked to take part in a lineup to seek legal counsel before agreeing or making any statements.