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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.”