Ben Paynter


Shuffling the Lineup: How One Man Is Redesigning the Witness ID Process

How one man is redesigning the witness identification process to prevent wrongful convictions.

With each step he takes down the bright hallway inside the Austin Police Department’s headquarters, the tall man in the white dress shirt and blue slacks looks more nervous. Next to him, a shorter, broad-shouldered detective named Derek Israel tries to calm him. Just look at a few pictures in a photo lineup, Israel says. “I’ll try,” the man says, “but don’t expect too much from me.”
Israel walks him to the robbery unit, a makeshift area in a sea of cubicles. Other detectives slurp coffee and raise their voices to be heard over the incessant ring of telephones. Israel seats the victim at a small desk and opens a black Dell laptop. The man’s eyes widen. Guided by onscreen prompts, Israel asks some basic questions about the conditions of the crime—weather, visibility, distance to the attacker, amount of time the assault lasted. “I don’t want to get anyone innocent in trouble,” the victim says. Israel tells him not to worry; with these preliminaries taken care of, he leaves.
Another detective, ruddy-faced, sits down in Israel’s vacated chair. “You know how to use a computer and a mouse and all that stuff?” he asks. The victim nods. The detective mouses the cursor to a green button at the bottom of a new screen, then motions for the victim to click Start. The computer starts to talk in a soothing female voice. “Photos will be shown one at a time, and you will be asked if the individual is familiar to you,” it says. This won’t be the classic Law & Order lineup, six people paraded in front of one-way glass. It won’t even be a lineup the way lineups are actually done these days in most law enforcement jurisdictions, a six-pack array of photographs, all roughly alike, one of them the suspect. Instead the victim will see images of potential muggers one at a time, and for each of them the computer will ask the same question: “Does this person look familiar to you?” There are three possible answers: Yes, No, and Not Sure. There’s no going back to see pictures twice, but if the answer is Yes, the lineup continues, giving the witness the chance to positively identify a different photo—to change his mind about the earlier ID.
When the first photo flashes onscreen, the victim cocks his head, squints his eyes and spends a full 20 seconds scrutinizing the photo before he clicks No. On the next image, he takes even longer, leaning in close before he clicks Not Sure. The program pauses. “He has a strange face,” the victim tells the detective, struggling to figure out if it is familiar. The detective shrugs noncommittally, and the pictures resume. It’s part detective work and part psych experiment. The man in the blue slacks, along with other victims in Austin, San Diego, Tucson, and Charlotte, is part of a research study, and they are all following the same protocol: They sit in front of laptops and are shown either a sequential lineup or a six-pack array. A detective unfamiliar with the case administers the lineup to avoid unconscious influence, while the computer tracks how long it takes the witness to make a choice and records everything he says. The researchers running the study hope to figure out the best way to elicit accurate recollections from people who experience horrible things—to reduce the number of times they might either wrongly accuse innocents of those crimes or mistakenly allow someone guilty to go free.
It’s an experimental protocol designed by Gary Wells, the guru of eyewitness reliability—or rather, unreliability. The director of social sciences at the American Judicature Society’s Center for Forensic Science and Public Policy, Wells has been working on lineups since the 1970s, but in the past 20 years exonerations of hundreds of prisoners based on DNA evidence—after many had been convicted in part based on good-faith eyewitness testimony—have made his task all the more urgent. Wells doesn’t want to merely understand witness identification. He wants to fix it.
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Gary Wells kicks his feet up on a large wooden table in his conference room on the fourth floor of Iowa State University’s psychology building. He’s in his early 60s, favors professorial cardigans, and after more than three decades of research pulls no punches when criticizing police methodology. “The modern detective? His posture is my posture right here,” he says, leaning back with an attitude that could be called complacent. “He is too eager to use an imperfect tool.” In this case, that tool is haphazardly designed photo lineups.

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