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Protecting the Innocent, Both Young and Old

Unlike a traditional police lineup, a new procedure can reduce stress on young witnesses, and help avoid wrongful convictions.


Witness misidentification is the number one reason for wrongful convictions that are later exonerated through DNA evidence. The way that police lineups are conducted can have a big influence on witness identification, and this is especially true when those witnesses are children.

Kaila C. Bruer, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, developed the Repeated Forced Choice (RFC) procedure in hopes of changing the way that child witnesses identify criminal suspects. It not only eases pressure on young people to point out a suspect, but it also helps police determine how well the child remembers the suspect.

In a typical police lineup, an actual suspect will be shown side-by-side with several other people as fillers. The witness will then look through all the people in the lineup and point out the one they believe committed the crime, if present.

In Bruer’s RFC procedure, there’s no long lineup of peers. Instead, the witness is shown pictures of faces in pairs, round-robin style so that each face is eventually shown paired with every other face in the stack. And instead of asking the child to directly identify a single suspect, at each pairing the child is asked which suspect looks the most like the person they saw committing the crime. The procedure continues until one face emerges the most consistently.

This gives much more information about which faces get chosen, how often, and whether there are patterns in features. There is less pressure to make a direct identification, and it can help the police decide whether it is likely that a false identification is being made.

The Innocence Project, a U.S.-based non-profit that helps exonerate the innocent, has even more advice for how to reduce false identification that can apply to witnesses at any age. They advocate that identification be performed by an officer who does not know which person in the lineup is the suspect, reducing bias and unconscious cues.

They recommend that the filler suspects have a few similar features to the actual suspect, such as the same race or hairstyle. They also suggest that investigators let the witness know that the investigation will continue regardless of whether a suspect is identified, easing pressure to make an immediate identification.

In the end, no one wins when an innocent person is convicted of a crime, while the true criminal walks free. Because eyewitness testimony holds so much weight in the courtroom, it’s critical to use evidence-based practices to help witnesses make confident and accurate identifications.

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Karyn Ho is a science animator and engineer who thrives at the interface between science, engineering, medicine, and art. She earned her MScBMC (biomedical communications) and PhD (chemical engineering and biomedical engineering) at the University of Toronto. Karyn is passionate about using cutting edge discoveries to create dynamic stories as a way of supporting innovation, collaboration, education, and informed decision making. By translating knowledge into narratives, her vision is to captivate people, spark their curiosity, and motivate them to share what they learned.