Showups are an identification technique in which a single individual, the suspect, is presented in a one-on-one confrontation with the victim or other witness of a crime. The witness is asked to indicate whether the suspect is or is not the perpetrator. Showup identifications are very common and even favored by the police as an investigative procedure. They are considered inherently suggestive because the witness views only one person and the identification requires only the assent of the witness. This entry describes the criteria used to justify the use of showups, compares the outcomes of showups and lineups, and reviews some of the dangers presented by the use of showups.
Although showup identifications may be viewed with disfavor by the courts, they are not per se considered violations of due process if there was an overriding need in light of the totality of circumstances. Showups may be justified when an immediate identification would facilitate an ongoing police investigation, a quick exoneration of the innocent could be made, the identification is completed in close proximity in time and place to the scene of the crime, and the witness’s memory is strongest or in its freshest state.
Whether a crime scene showup is unduly suggestive and results in a misidentification is a mixed question of law and fact. If the prosecution can prove by clear and convincing evidence that the showup identification was reliable enough to be probative despite some suggestiveness, the witness’s identification is admissible. Any suggestiveness in the process would go to the weight of the identification, not its admissibility. In contrast, if the defense can prove that the showup procedure was unduly and unnecessarily suggestive, the identification evidence based on an unfairly conducted showup would be suppressed.
Judges typically consider the following factors in determining whether pretrial suggestiveness unduly influenced the identification trial testimony of an eyewitness: (a) the opportunity of the witness to view the perpetrator at the time of the crime, (b) the witness’s degree of attention at the time of the crime, (c) the accuracy of the witness’s prior description of the perpetrator, (d) the level of certainty demonstrated at the time of the identification, and (e) the lapse of time between the crime and the identification procedure. Scientific research has shown, however, that only the opportunity to observe and the length of the retention interval are related to accuracy of identification. Most eyewitness researchers agree that the use of showups in contrast to many-person lineups increases the risk of misidentification, and the evidence in support of this conclusion is generally reliable.
It has been argued that showups, in principle, are less fair than lineups because they fail to protect the innocent suspect. That is, showups cannot distribute the probability of identification of an innocent suspect across lineup fillers, and thus, they increase the risk of an identification error. Also, it is assumed that showup procedures are high-pressure situations in which witnesses are encouraged to make an identification or situations that force witnesses to make an identification. Because a showup involves the single presentation of a suspect, it is hypothesized that a witness’s decision is based on an absolute judgment in which the suspect is compared with his or her memory of the perpetrator. Viewing the showup may be similar to viewing the first person in a sequential lineup, where the witness must make an absolute judgment based on individual presentations of the suspect and a number of fillers. In contrast, simultaneously presented lineups of a suspect and fillers involve witnesses making relative judgments of who in the lineup most closely resembles the perpetrator. Sequential lineups have been shown to increase correct rejections of innocent suspects without significantly affecting the accuracy of identification (hit) rate compared with simultaneously presented lineups of a suspect and fillers. Thus, in theory, showups may be beneficial if they increase correct rejections; however, they may be dangerous if they fail to protect an innocent suspect from false identifications. Furthermore, if the procedure is suggestive, there will be increased pressure to choose, thereby generating an increase in both correct and incorrect selections.
Meta-analytic comparisons of showup and lineup presentations reveal that showups generate lower choosing rates than lineups. This suggests that witnesses may be more cautious with their identification in a showup situation. Unlike actual cases where the presence of the guilty suspect cannot be controlled, meta-analysis comparisons indicate that the correct identification (hit) rate is very similar in both conditions (approximately 46%) when the target is present; correct rejection rates are significantly higher in showups when the target is absent; false identifications in target-absent conditions are about the same (16%); however, errors in target-absent lineups are spread across fillers rather than focused on the innocent suspect in a showup; and false identifications are particularly high in showups when the innocent suspect resembles the perpetrator, for example, when they wear similar clothing.
No significant differences in identification have been found between live and photographic showups. Witnesses are likely to be equally confident in showup identifications in their correct choices of guilty suspects and false selections of innocent suspects. Innocent suspects are at significantly less risk in being falsely identified in lineups than in showups, especially after 2- and 24-hour retention intervals. Comparisons of showups and lineups for voice identifications, either from tape-recordings presented in the field or over the telephone, indicate that lineups are significantly superior to showups in minimizing false identifications of a suspect who sounds very similar to the perpetrator.
Research on the effect of alcohol on identification from showups reveals that blood alcohol level is not related to accuracy of identification (hits) when the guilty suspect is present in the confrontation. However, if an innocent suspect is present, the higher the blood alcohol level, the greater the number of false identifications.
- Steblay, N., Dysart, J., Fulero, S., & Lindsay, R. C. L. (2003). Eyewitness accuracy rates in police showup and lineup presentations: A meta-analytic comparison. Law and Human Behavior, 27, 523-540.
- Yarmey, A. D., Yarmey, M. J., & Yarmey, A. L. (1996). Accuracy of eyewitness identifications in showups and lineups. Law and Human Behavior, 20, 459-177.
Return to the overview of Eyewitness Memory in Forensic Psychology.