Witness identification methods on parade

Dr Ryan Fitzgerald

Dr Ryan Fitzgerald

Scientists are to carry out an in-depth study to see which form of witness identification of criminals works best – live line-up, video line-up, or mugshots.

Dr Ryan Fitzgerald, at the University of Portsmouth Department of Psychology, and colleagues will examine whether the live line-ups familiar from Hollywood films and widely used in Australia and South Africa, or mugshots, used in North America, or England’s method of video line-ups showing just head and shoulders results in more criminals being correctly picked out by witnesses.

Dr Fitzgerald said: “Such widespread difference in methods begs the question, which one is best?”

More than 90,000 identity parades are carried out in the UK each year.

Mistaken eyewitness identification is a leading contributor to wrongful convictions. In 70 per cent of convictions overturned by DNA evidence, a mistaken identification was involved.

Dr Fitzgerald was awarded £180,000 funding from the Economic and Social Research Council for the two-year study.

He said: “It is imperative all the various ways of identifying people are examined and tested rigorously, in order for us to know the shortcomings or strengths of each. False identifications can be disastrous not only for people who are wrongfully convicted, but also for witnesses who may feel responsible for sending an innocent person to prison.”

There have been some studies of identification parade methods but they are out of date and most have questionable reliability because the sample sizes were so small.

The researchers will carry out extensive experiments, testing the reliability of all three currently widely used methods and introducing a fourth identification method of whole body video.

“We need to be able to quantify whether seeing someone’s body moving helps an eyewitness identify the criminal,” said Dr Fitzgerald.

“Identity parades which show whole-person views might be particularly useful for witnesses who see a crime from a distance or where the criminal was, for example, wearing sunglasses.”

Hundreds of people will be recruited to take part in the studies, with some acting as witnesses, others as criminals and others as people to fill the identity parade.

The results are likely to have clear policy implications for lawmakers worldwide.

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