Identification Made Easy

A hearing relating to a charge of assault came before the Criminal Court in Perth on 15 March 1906. No details were provided in the newspaper report but it nevertheless highlighted how a method of identification could be deemed inappropriate if carried out incorrectly.

A crime was committed, the victim made a complaint and an accusation was made against two men. When it became known, one of the men voluntarily reported to Fremantle Prison and agreed to participate in a police lineup. Dressed in ordinary clothes, he stood with a group of about 10 or 12 other men, all of whom were wearing prison uniforms.

The complainant (an older man who’d been drinking) stood before them and at first was overwhelmed by the “dazzling glare in the prison yard“. He picked the wrong man. The police gave him another go and that time he chose the right man.

When the evidence of how the police lineup was conducted was brought before the Court, Commissioner Roe was rightfully critical and stated it was, “Like putting a label on the accused.” The defendant’s lawyer then piped up, “Might just as well have stood him among a lot of sheep!

Commissioner Roe summed up for the jury and stressed how certain measures of obtaining identification could lead to terrible injustice.

The identification in this case was a farce, and I am very much surprised indeed to hear that identification was attempted under such circumstances. To take a man into a yard and put him, dressed in plain clothes, with 10 or 12 others in prison garb, and ask the complainant to say who it was who assaulted him, is not fair to either the accused or the complainant. I hope and trust that no further identifications will be attempted under such circumstances.

In considering the remarkable tale the Sunday Times later wondered what happened once the witness failed to identify the suspect. They then admitted rhetorically that in such a set of circumstances, “…does he ever fail to identify him?

In the end it was the cartoonist Ben Strange who had the last word in his ‘Cartoonlets’ spread in the Western Mail. Illustrating just how ridiculous such a mode of identification was, he labelled the comic ‘Identification made easy.’

“Like putting a label on the accused.”

Sources:

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