Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Innocence Projcet founder calls for eyewitness standards

October 22, 2007

By Shannon McCaffrey, Associated Press

The founder of the Innocence Project on Monday called for standards governing eyewitness identification in Georgia criminal cases, warning that there is a greater risk of sending the wrong person to prison without them.

Famed O.J. Simpson lawyer Barry Scheck said that there is widespread agreement within law enforcement circles on "best practices" in conducting lineups, and that following them will reduce the chances of misidentifying a suspect, he said.

Scheck testified on Monday before a House study committee weighing whether to create statewide standards in Georgia, where six men were jailed for years on the strength of eyewitness IDs before being cleared through post-conviction DNA analysis.

Scheck's New York-based Innocence Project has helped exonerate 208 people across the country through DNA evidence.

"The criminal justice system has to become more scientific in areas where we can prevent errors," Scheck told the panel.

A recent survey by the Georgia Innocence Project found that 83 percent of 296 police departments surveyed had no written protocol in place governing how to conduct lineups.

Scheck called that "a serious problem" that could make them vulnerable to costly civil lawsuits. Federal courts have recently allowed civil claims from wrongfully incarcerated inmates to reach a jury trial. Those without written policies could face steep damages.

Defense lawyers have also begun attacking the lack of policies or police training on eyewitness IDs during criminal trials, Scheck said.

Monday's study committee hearing also elicited emotional testimony from Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a North Carolina woman who named the wrong man as her rapist in 1984. Ronald Cotton spent 11 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence.

The two have since become friends and hit the road together to give talks about the vulnerabilities of eyewitness identification. They appeared together in a documentary "What Jennifer Saw."

Thompson-Cannino, a 22 year-old college student when she was attacked, said she studied her rapist closely so that she could identify him afterward. At one point, she even made a point of standing next to him so she could get a good sense of his height.

"I was a good witness," she said. "The night I was raped I knew what I saw."

But she described how her memory was corrupted by well-intentioned police who had her help an artist draw a composite sketch and then look at photos. After she picked out Cotton, police rewarded her with "good job," which reinforced her belief that she had nabbed the right man.

"I'm a good person. I made a mistake," she said.

The House panel is hearing testimony about whether it is better to show witnesses photos of potential suspects sequentially, rather than all at once. They are also looking at whether the lineup should be "double-blind," meaning that the investigator running it should be in the dark about the suspect's identity. That would prevent any intentional or unintentional signals to the witness about whom to select.

The larger question is whether the state should pass a law mandating certain procedures or if it should simply provide guidance and leave the details up to police training officials.

Law enforcement officials have warned against passing a law mandating how police must conduct eyewitness identifications, saying it could handcuff officers looking to solve crimes.

One of the panel's members, Republican Rep. Ed Setzler of Acworth, said he has concerns that placing a detailed set of guidelines into law could provide defense lawyers with an easy route of attack if police failed to adhere to even the smallest detail.

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