In a move apparently in response to growing national concern over false witness identifications of criminal suspects leading to false convictions, the Austin Police Department (APD) has joined the trend of other law enforcement agencies across the USA to change how they conduct photo lineups to identify suspects.
This past Monday, Dec. 7th, APD announced that, for the "vast majority" of their cases, it was dropping its previous procedure of presenting "suspects" simultaneously to witnesses in favor of providing witnesses with images of potential suspects one by one, i.e., sequentially.
The sequential lineup, often called the "six-pack" because of the grouping of six individuals at a time, was described by the Austin American-Statesman (Dec. 7th) as nationally "a long-used investigative technique that has come under widespread scrutiny in recent years.
"In recent years," reports the Statesman, "experts have argued that the use of sequential lineups reduces the likelihood of accusing the wrong person of a crime."
APD Chief Art Acevedo described his department as joining "the first wave" of law enforcement agencies nationwide across to adopt the sequential lineup procedure. However, the simultaneous lineup process, which apparently leads to a significantly higher rate of false convictions, will still be deployed in what Acevedo called "a small percentage" of cases, such as some involving child witnesses.
APD's move follows a 2011 American Judicature Society (AJS) study as well as a Texas state legislative mandate to address problems in the identification of suspects.
The ID process has come under particular scrutiny in Texas. According to the Innocence Project, an organization renowned for its work in overturning wrongful convictions, the state leads the USA in post-conviction DNA exonerations.
The 2011 AJS study used data primarily from APD to detemine that having witnesses view one photograph at a time produced fewer mistaken IDs than lineups presenting all of the photographs at once.
The study also found that double-blind lineups, where neither the person administering the photos nor the witness knows which person is the suspect, have a higher success rate than lineups where an investigator knows a suspect’s identity. APD has used the double-blind policy since 2010, according to Acevedo.
Mistaken identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country, according to Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg and others.
However, at least one Austin lawyer, criminal defense attorney Florencia C. Rueda, has raised concerns that the new policy may worsen the problem of wrongful convictions. In a Jan. 8th post on her website, Rueda said "The power of suggestion is mighty, often more so than one’s memory, and this policy lends itself for equal if not more powers of suggestion and manipulation than the line up."
Nevertheless, such concerns do not appear to be shared by most civil libertarians.