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Archive for Monday, July 23, 2001

N.J. changing method used to I.D. suspects

July 23, 2001

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— A subtle change in the way crime victims and witnesses in New Jersey will be asked to identify suspects demonstrates how DNA evidence is changing law enforcement.

For more than two decades, psychologists have been studying the new identification method in which authorities ask witnesses to view pictures of possible suspects one at a time.

In October, New Jersey will become the first state with guidelines strongly recommending that police use the sequential method rather than displaying an array of photos of suspects.

Studies have shown that the new method which doesn't allow witnesses to compare mug shots side-by-side drastically cuts the number of mistaken identifications.

In 1999, a study by the U.S. Justice Department found that many cases overturned on the basis of DNA evidence relied heavily on witness identifications of suspects.

"Before, we didn't have (DNA) testing, which I think is going to revolutionize law enforcement as much as the fingerprint did," state Atty. Gen. John J. Farmer Jr., who called for the change, said Sunday.

The push for the sequential method came from law enforcement not advocates of suspects.

"As the science gets better, law enforcement serves itself well as we stay current," said Kathy Flicker, director of the state Division of Criminal Justice.

The policy change coincides with another unconventional new program in New Jersey designed to take advantage of DNA evidence.

As part of the Truth Project, which was unveiled last month, inmates can try to use DNA to establish their innocence at the state's expense.

But by enrolling, prisoners give authorities the right to try to match their DNA against samples gathered from the scenes of unsolved crimes or even future crimes.

DNA can match people to evidence found at crime scenes or exonerate them. Flicker said New Jersey has had relatively few cases overturned because of DNA evidence.

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