On June 25, the California Innocence Project announced the exoneration of San Diego resident Uriah Courtney. Courtney spent 8 years in prison for a sex crime he did not commit before proving his innocence through DNA testing. One factor in his wrongful conviction was eyewitness misidentification. In the aftermath of the Courtney exoneration, the San Diego Union Tribune (UT) has published an article that questions whether San Diego is doing enough to improve eyewitness accuracy.
The UT writes that many other law-enforcement agencies in other parts of the country have adopted eyewitness identification reforms but San Diego County has not. The major reforms are aimed at how lineups are conducted. Mistakes are made with both photo and live lineups. The UT asked CIP attorneys about the role of lineups in the Courtney case:”
“Studies have shown that what a witness will do with a six-pack is pick the person who looks the closest to the one they saw,” said Jan Stiglitz, a professor at California Western School of Law in San Diego and co-director of the California Innocence Project based there.
“Then when they do a live lineup, the witness tends to identify the person not from the crime, but from the six-pack. And then the witness sees the guy in the courtroom, and each time that choice gets reaffirmed. So when it comes to trial, the witness is absolutely certain that the defendant is the person they saw.”
In the Courtney case, when the victim picked him out of the photo lineup, she said she was 70 percent sure he was the rapist, according to Alissa Bjerkhoel, his Innocence Project attorney. At the trial, the victim was 100 percent certain. She said seeing him in person made her more confident.
Another witness in the case also picked Courtney out of a photo lineup. The problem with that one, Bjerkhoel said, is that the witness is Hispanic and Courtney is white. Cross-racial identifications are known from research to be problematic; people tend to see those of other races as looking alike.”
So, what is the solution? A good start is implementing the use of double blind sequential lineups, where neither the witness nor the detective administering the lineup know who the suspect is. The District Attorney for Santa Clara County told the UT that double blind sequential identifications have improved accuracy and have not decreased the overall number of identifications.
Will San Diego County follow suit? Maybe, as the District Attorney prefers to let each agency decide the procedure and evaluate the results later. On the other hand, “[t]he Sheriff’s Department, which investigated the Courtney case, is taking a look at double-blind sequential. “If our review supports the use of this technique to help prevent misidentification,” said Central Investigations Lt. James Bolwerk, “we will implement it and update our policy accordingly.””
Eyewitness identification reforms are needed and are simple to implement. Prior reform bills were vetoed by then-California Governor Schwarzenegger but Gov. Jerry Brown will probably be more receptive. It’s time to make eyewitness identification policies uniform and effective in order to prevent wrongful convictions.