Spotlight on police reform raises questions about lineups and eyewitness testimony

Eyewitness identifications have contributed to over 70 percent of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the U.S. But some reforms to eyewitness lineup procedures and more awareness of the limitations of cross-racial identification could help prevent wrongful convictions in the future.

Video Transcript

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SARA JONES: I've lived in Minnesota my whole life. My father was a public defender. So I've long been aware of the problems with racism in Minneapolis and efforts to improve things that have failed. Ever since people were made aware of George Floyd's death by seeing the video, I think people were horrified.

- George Floyd!

SARA JONES: I think it gives us more of an overall sense of urgency for our work. The Innocence Project of Minnesota, we work to free wrongfully convicted people who are innocent, and we work to change the justice system to help prevent wrongful convictions.

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Our organization started working on reforms to eyewitness identification procedures several years ago. While we were approaching it from the standpoint of eyewitness identifications causing a large percentage of wrongful convictions, it's also going to help anybody who's in touch with the criminal justice system. My colleague Julie Jonas, who is our legal director, has been the champion for this effort.

JULIE JONAS: Minnesota implemented a new law that's going to require best practices for law enforcement in doing eyewitness identification, particularly photo lineups. The first and most important one is doing a "double-blind" methodology, which just means that the officer who's conducting the lineup procedure does not know who this suspect is to prevent that officer from unintentional biases. We have studies show that-- that the police officer's even nonverbal communication or affirmative feedback to the witness can cause the witness to pick someone they otherwise might not have picked, can even cause a false memory to be created. So that's by far the most important reform.

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SARA JONES: There have been all kinds of studies showing that cross-racial identifications are the most often mistaken because we recognize differences in how people of our own race look, little subtle differences, but we don't recognize the nuances in people's appearance if they are of a different race than we are. So that's one of the reasons that eyewitness identifications can be so fraught with error is people can only provide very general descriptions of somebody who is of a different race.

Especially if somebody is threatened with a weapon, there's often a laser focus on the weapon itself. And they think they're paying attention to what the person looks like, but they're not. They're paying attention to that weapon because that weapon is what's going to threaten them with harm.

JULIE JONAS: There's been so many studies done about cross-racial identification, about the effect of stress in an identification, about weapons focus. The case of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, it is one of the very famous wrongful convictions because the two of them have gone on to speak about it quite a bit in public. Jennifer was a college student. She was alone at home asleep in her bed. And she woke up, and there was an African-American man in the room who proceeded to rape her.

And what she decided is she was going to try and memorize his facial features so that she would be able to tell the police who it was. Ronald Cotton's photograph was put into a photo array that was shown to Jennifer Thompson. And when she picked him out of the lineup, the investigating officer said, great job. And so her certainty level went up. What eventually happens in this case is Ronald Cotton goes to trial, he's convicted on Jennifer Thompson's testimony.

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Years later, DNA testing is done, and it shows that it was Bobby Poole. This fake memory had been created at the time of the lineup from just a very simple piece of affirmative feedback.

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SARA JONES: The majority of the people we've gotten out of prison have been people of color. So I think it's kind of evident at this point that there is racism in every aspect of our criminal justice system. I think it's-- it's really undeniable at this point.

JULIE JONAS: Our goals are really centered around helping people who are innocent. We know there are more black and brown people being arrested, tried, and incarcerated than Caucasian people.

SARA JONES: The Innocence Project of Minnesota will keep working on reforms to our justice system, improvements to our justice system. And we're very happy that the work that we do not only helps innocent people who have been wrongfully convicted, but also helps our justice system as a whole to be better.

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