Mistaken identity

SSHRC researcher reveals the built-in biases that put innocent people behind bars

Date published: 2008-02-25 1:58:47 PM

The single greatest cause of wrongful convictions is misidentification, according to Rod Lindsay, a specialist in issues of eyewitness identification and child witness credibility. To reduce the chances of errors being made when children are the victims, Lindsay has been working on an approach to make the identification process more accurate.

The new approach is "more of an innocence test than a guilt test," says the Queen's University psychology professor. Children as young as two are shown several photographs at once and, rather than picking out the guilty party, are asked to remove those that don't look like the person responsible for the crime.

"When presented with a large number of photographs, young children tend to mistakenly identify a guilty party as innocent only after they have viewed and discarded more than 50 per cent of the pictures," Lindsay explains. "So, we use this procedure to eliminate a suspect rather than identify the guilty party."

With older children, aged eight to thirteen, this "elimination" method is used until there is only one picture left. The child is then asked if the remaining suspect is the person responsible.

This SSHRC-supported research evolved from Lindsay's earlier work that underscores the false assumptions that are often made in a traditional police line-up system where up to 40 per cent of witnesses may end up identifying someone as the perpetrator—even when the actual perpetrator is not in the line-up.

"Most witnesses approach a six-person line-up as a multiple choice test where they assume one of the suspects must be the right answer, " says Lindsay. "If the person who committed the crime isn't there, witnesses often make an identification because they feel they are expected to choose one of the people in the line-up."

But, when witnesses view a random number of suspects or photographs of suspects, one at a time, in what is called a sequential line-up, fewer than 10 per cent choose an innocent person—and without decreasing the possibility that the culprit will be singled out.

Rod Lindsay has received six SSHRC grants to fund his research into eyewitness identification, including one in 2002 for research into the validity of eyewitness identification by children.