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National Research Council urges police, courts to use caution in eyewitness identifications

| Friday, Oct. 3, 2014, 10:20 p.m.

A new report from the National Research Council urges police and the courts to use caution in eyewitness identifications of strangers but leaves unanswered the question of whether sequential or simultaneous lineups or photo arrays are most reliable.

Many police departments have begun to use sequential lineups — in which the witness is shown one person or photo at a time — instead of simultaneous lineups, which show several people or photos all at once, the report notes.

“I think it is a long overdue first step on a national level,” Downtown defense attorney Michael DeRiso said on Friday. “I think there should be standardized jury instructions on eyewitness testimony, which should be used with extreme caution.”

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala and new Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Stephen A. Bucar had a public dispute over the summer when the district attorney said that city police must get approval from his office to file felony arrest warrants if they rely on an eyewitness who doesn't know the suspect.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in May that experts can testify about the reliability of eyewitness identification as long as a trial court deems the expert relevant to the case. Such testimony had been forbidden in Pennsylvania for two decades.

“Eyewitness identification has plagued the criminal defense system for the past 50 years because that eyewitness identification usually occurs under circumstances that are not typical, usually an emergency situation that involves suddenness or great emotion, something startling,” said Phillip DiLucente, another Downtown defense attorney.

The report suggests that police departments implement standardized procedures for handling lineups — including those in which neither the witness nor the questioner knows which person in the lineup or photo array is the suspect.

“Human visual perception and memory are changeable, the ability to recognize individuals is imperfect, and policies governing law enforcement procedures are not standard — and any of these limitations can produce mistaken identification with serious consequences,” said Thomas Albright, co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.

Zappala, who has not seen the report, said he is comfortable with policies that his office already follow including those adopted by the Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association, which say authorities should show witnesses photos of suspects one at a time.

“I have had a chance to do a lot of research on the issue and came to certain conclusions,” said Zappala, a member of a state House advisory council that spent years studying wrongful convictions. “We've adopted what makes sense to us.”

Zappala said his office has people available at all time to discuss most major crimes before investigators file charges.

Bucar — who has said he likely would support the sequential model but was advised by colleagues in the Department of Justice to wait for the research council's report to show which method is superior — will not comment until he has a chance to study the council's recommendations, Public Safety Department spokeswoman Sonya M. Toler said.

Michael Hasch is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7820

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