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Identification is notoriously difficult, and has frequently been proved wrong by other decisive evidence, such as DNA. Human beings are just not that good at picking the person we saw commit a crime, or even at recognising people we know. How many times have you seen a person walking down the street, and thought it was someone you knew really well, only to discover on closer checking that it was not them? That kind of “fleeting glimpse” identification is the most dangerous.
There’s a Code of Practice for police as to when and how to carry out identification procedures, backed up by a whole body of criminal case law. Many police forces here use VIPER, which shows a series of images on DVD – stills or videos – and asks the witness to pick the person. The possible choices are shown sequentially, but the witness does not have to make a decision about whether they are or are not the right one before moving on to the next. That appears to be the big difference between VIPER and the system Gary Wells has designed. Also, Gary Wells’ process is significantly different, it seems, from usual practice in the US, which appears to be to show the selection simultaneously in an array.
I don’t know what the data is for successful identifications from VIPER procedures, and it’s harder to assess outside the lab, of course, when you may not know who the real culprit is. The stats from Wells’ research are described in Ben Paynter’s article: “Overall, simultaneous and sequential methods proved equally (if not highly) effective. Witnesses to real crimes picked the prime suspect 26 and 27 percent of the time, respectively. That difference isn’t statistically significant. For Wells, it’s the first indication that there actually might not be any downside to the sequential method: If the suspect is there, witnesses will pick him or her out, no matter which lineup procedure gets used. Even better, while witnesses viewing simultaneous lineups chose fillers 42 percent of the time, witnesses viewing sequential lineups picked fillers only 31 percent of the time. In other words, witnesses shown sequential lineups are 25 percent less likely to rationalize their way into bad choices.”
From the always-interesting Mind Hacks (and they got it from overlawyered.com):
In 1995, New Mexico state senator Duncan Scott introduced a legislative amendment providing that:
When a psychologist or psychiatrist testifies during a defendant’s competency hearing, the psychologist or psychiatrist shall wear a cone-shaped hat that is not less than two feet tall. The surface of the hat shall be imprinted with stars and lightning bolts. Additionally, a psychologist or psychiatrist shall be required to don a white beard that is not less than 18 inches in length, and shall punctuate crucial elements of his testimony by stabbing the air with a wand. Whenever a psychologist or psychiatrist provides expert testimony regarding a defendant’s competency, the bailiff shall contemporaneously dim the courtroom lights and administer two strikes to a Chinese gong…
The amendment, which was intended satirically, was passed unanimously but removed from the bill before it became law.
If you want to know more, there’s a good post by Karen Franklin Ph.D. here expanding on the story.
A fascinating article by Adam Gopnik in New Yorker magazine on the American penal system, including some scary facts and figures – like, that the population of the US prison system, if residing in a single city, would make that the second largest city in the US. It covers, very articulately, a lot of ground, including the historical, philosophical and political drivers of penal policies, relationship to crime rates, and what could help reduce the incarceration rate. Some of the last are really simple, like reducing the opportunities for crimes to be committed.
It’s worth reading the whole thing, but here’s a few of my favourite quotes:
“Crime is not the consequence of a set number of criminals; criminals are the consequence of a set number of opportunities to commit crimes … Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.”
“Epidemics seldom end with miracle cures … Merely chipping away at the problem round the edges is usually the best thing to do with a problem; keep chipping away patiently, and, eventually, you get to its heart.”
“A conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged; a liberal is a conservative who’s been indicted; and a passionate prison reformer is a conservative who’s in one.”