Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How not to conduct a line-up

A police officer in Charlotte, N.C. has resigned in protest over the prosecutor's office dismissing a large number of his cases.  (Well, in protest and in recognition of the fact that he was surely going to be fired anyway.)  The dispute began when a robbery victim reported Off. Brian Cloninger tried to influence her identification of a suspect in a line-up.  On the night of the mugging, the officer listened to the victim's description of the incident and became convinced he knew who committed the attack.  He urged the victim to look at the picture and commit it to memory over the course of the next few days so she would be able to pick him out of a line-up.  He even called her at 11 p.m. several days later to make sure she had been following his instructions.

The officer did not count on one thing when trying to coach this particular witness: she was a lawyer and could recognize misconduct when she saw it.  So she informed the prosecutor of what the officer had done.  (It did take her 6 months and she only reported it after going through the line-up and getting the suspect arrested, but she did come through in the end.)  With the only evidence being the irreparably-tainted eyewitness identification, the case had to be dismissed.

For his part, Cloninger seems committed to the idea that he did nothing wrong.  He was just trying to get the bad guy and, according to the prosecutor, Cloninger maintains he wouldn't do anything differently if he had it to do over again.  For her part, the victim is confident that the man Cloninger picked out is her attacker.  She was sure when she saw him in court.  But that only emphasizes the problem of suggestive identification procedures.  Once the officer showed her that picture and convinced her that was the guy, her memory would see him as her attacker.  It's frankly worthless that 6 months later when she saw the man in court, she recognized his voice and his walk.  The research is quite clear that an eyewitness' certainty has no bearing on her accuracy.  By the time she saw the man in court, her subconscious would only be looking to confirm the identification.  Fortunately, the prosecutors understood the deep flaw in Cloninger's actions and have opened up an extensive review of his case work. 

Over the past decade or more, we have learned a lot about the best ways to deal with eyewitness identifications.  We know that showing them multiple photos is less suggestive than showing them just one.  We know that showing them one at a time instead of in a six-pack is preferable because our natural tendency is to compare and pick the best match when looking at multiples.  When a witness looks at just one photo at a time, though, the witness is picking or rejecting each photo on its own merits.  We know that the officer conducting the line-up should be unaware of who the suspect is so the officer cannot subconsciously lead the witness to pick the suspect out. 

Yet, there are too many in the law enforcement world who resist implementing these changes.  As a result, they are making it less likely that the actual perpetrators of crimes will be caught.  Those officers who would cut through proper procedures to "get the bad guy" do a disservice to their stated goal.  They may well get the wrong guy or no guy at all.  Remember for every wrongful conviction obtained through misconduct or mistaken eyewitness identifications, there is a bad guy who was never caught.  By his tactics, Cloninger single-handedly guaranteed that no one will ever be convicted for the robbery he investigated.  The victim who reported his misconduct will get no sense of security in knowing that the man who put a gun in her face is behind bars.  My hope for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police force is that they use this incident as an opening to re-training their officers in these best methods and put these methods in action so they avoid another Cloninger incident.

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