September 10, 2013

Two years ago, the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services took steps to ensure that fewer Virginians will be misidentified as criminal suspects in eyewitness lineups. The agency acted to limit misidentification primarily because the people of Virginia can only truly have faith in the criminal justice system if it prosecutes individuals fairly and if prosecutions are informed by accurate information. When an individual’s criminal defense is unjustly influenced by eyewitness misidentification, no one benefits.

Unacceptably, only a few police departments in the whole of Virginia have adopted the agency’s model since it was released two years ago. Out of 144 police departments and law enforcement agencies throughout the state which have written policies on suspect identification, only nine have adopted the low-cost misidentification prevention model. Over 100 more have failed to even write up policies on the issue, even though all law enforcement agencies were instructed to create them by the Virginia General Assembly eight years ago.

Suspect misidentification by eyewitnesses to criminal acts is a serious problem in Virginia. Of the 16 wrongfully convicted men set free by the state in recent years due to DNA evidence that proved their innocence, 13 were misidentified by witnesses in either lineups or photographs prior to their wrongful convictions.

At this point, the model is voluntary. But if police departments continue to fail to implement the model, lawmakers may become compelled to make the model mandatory procedure. Understanding the potential consequences of inaction and yet failing to act on this critical issue is simply unacceptable at this point in time.

Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Many suspect lineups remain flawed across VA,” Frank Green, Aug. 26, 2013

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