THE VENERABLE POLICE lineup, in which half a dozen or more suspects are presented side by side for eyewitnesses to choose from, may soon find itself on death row. Minnesota's Hennepin County has released some of the country's first hard data on the new "sequential lineup" that Minneapolis and three of its suburbs have been testing since late 2003. Rather than lining up suspects next to one another, Minnesota police have been showing them to eyewitnesses one by one. The report claims that sequential lineups have reduced incorrect identifications--which average between 20% and 25% in traditional lineups--to 14%.
Viewing suspects individually rather than as a group makes it less likely that a witness will finger a suspect simply because he looks more like the culprit than anyone else in the line. To minimize the chance of such mistakes, police departments in several states, including Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin, are testing the sequential method. Most of those departments are also making their lineups "double blind": the officer in charge does not know who the alleged culprit is and thus cannot subconsciously influence the witness. That can pose a problem in small towns, where the officers usually know everyone, including the suspect. Minneapolis police captain Richard Stanek's solution is to put mug shots on a laptop computer and allow the witness to view them privately. Iowa State University psychology professor Gary Wells, who has been advocating sequential lineups for almost 30 years, contends that they will be the dominant procedure across the country in five to seven years. "It's been a slow awakening," he says, "but it's finally happening." --By Kristin Kloberdanz