Litigating Lineups: Why the American Justice System Is Keeping a Close Eye on Witness Identification
Studies have shown that memory and recall are more fallible than failsafe. That finding undermines eyewitness identifications—a critical prosecution mainstay—revealing them as far more fragile evidence than imagined. Just ask Rickey Dale Wyatt of Dallas, Texas. On January 4, 2012, he was released from prison after serving 31 years of a 99-year sentence for a rape he did not commit.
Police were sure that a single rapist had committed a cluster of rapes when they arrested Wyatt for three assaults.
The third victim, who had been grabbed from behind and dragged at knifepoint to a dimly lit area, was the first to identify Wyatt. Ultimately, all three picked Wyatt from photographic lineups. All had described their rapists as being between 170 and 200 pounds, between 5’9” and 6’, and as having no facial hair. Wyatt is 5’6”, was close to 140 pounds—and he had abundant facial hair and a mustache.
While Victim No. 3 identified Wyatt in the photo lineup, she had failed to do so in a live lineup (which wasn’t recorded). That failure, and knowledge of the lineup’s very existence, was withheld from Wyatt’s defense attorney.
Wyatt stood trial for one rape: the first. While his nephew testified that he’d never weighed more than 140 pounds, a police officer testified that after Wyatt’s arrest the suspect had lost approximately 30 pounds in 10 days.
Wyatt, then 25, declined a plea deal for a 5-year sentence and defended his innocence in front of a jury. He lost.