Criminal Defense Attorneys Seek Underlying Data in Illinois Line-Up Reform Pilot

In 2003, the Illinois Governor’s Commission on Capital Punishment issued recommendations that reached beyond the yes or no question of the death penalty into safeguards that would help the Illinois criminal justice system avoid the wrongful convictions that had led to formation of the commission. From the time the death penalty was reinstituted in Illinois in 1977 until Governor George Ryan imposed a moratorium on executions on January 31, 2000, the state of Illinois was forced to release more men erroneously sentenced to death than it actually executed.

One of the recommendations of that commission was that line-up procedures be revamped, and that a pilot program be conducted using a sequential, double-blind process. Rather than showing witnesses an array of photographs or a group of people from whom to identify a suspect, the sequential approach requires showing the witness one photograph or one live participant at a time. The double-blind aspect required that the process be administered by officers who did not know which of the photographs or live participants was the actual suspect.

Researchers generally agree that sequential line-ups reduce the number of false identifications, both because witnesses viewing a sequential line-up apply a higher standard of judgment and because a photo array or live group line-up encourages relative judgment, in which a witness is more likely to compare the subjects to one another and to choose the one that is “closest” to his memory.

Surprisingly, the Illinois pilot program showed a higher rate of known false identifications and a lower rate of suspect identifications than the traditional simultaneous method. Those results turned national attention toward the Illinois pilot program, and triggered a lawsuit by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).

NACDL indicates that police and prosecutors across the country are pointing to the Illinois report as a reason to preserve the status quo and resist line-up procedure reforms. Because the report is being used to justify the system many criminal defense attorneys challenge ‒ dozens of people in Illinois alone are known to have been wrongfully convicted after being mis-identified in traditional line-ups ‒ they want the data used to compile the report and its conclusions.

Response from the law enforcement agencies involved in the pilot have varied, but Sheri H. Mecklenburg, chief counsel to the Chicago Police Superintendent, reportedly told The Chicago Tribune that data relating to pending criminal cases that identifies victims, witnesses, and innocent or uncharged suspects are not subject to public disclosure.

Meanwhile, law enforcement agencies across the country cite the Illinois results as evidence that proposed reforms won’t work. According to NACDL, though, those agencies object to the reforms not because they’re less effective, but because they’re more time-consuming and expensive to administer. The report submitted to the Illinois legislature did raise issues about the efficiency of the method, even suggesting that it often caused investigative delays.

Thus far, it seems that the year-long pilot program in Illinois has raised more questions than it has answered, and has added a new legal issue to the already raging debate over line-up procedures and reforms.