By Zach Lowe-Stamford Advocate Stamford, Connecticut
March 24, 2008
Legislators on the Judiciary Committee today will consider bills that would require police to videotape interrogations and change the way officers conduct photo lineups.
Versions of the two bills have failed for half a dozen years, in part because of opposition from law enforcement. But lawmakers hope they can pass a compromise version of each bill, and that, if passed, the changes would prevent the conviction of innocent people.
To be considered by the full assembly, the bills must be voted out of the Judiciary Committee by 5 p.m. today, said state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the committee.
They may get lost in the shuffle amid debate over Gov. M. Jodi Rell's proposed sanctions for sex offenders and a proposal to take DNA samples from more offenders, McDonald said.
The first bill, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, would require police to videotape interrogations of suspects in serious felony cases.
The passage of such a sweeping bill is unlikely despite support from the state's public defender and advocates for the mentally ill, said state Rep. Mike Lawlor, D-East Haven, a former prosecutor and co-chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Officials with the state Division of Criminal Justice oppose the bill because they want decisions on interrogation left to each department, according to testimony submitted last week.
"Absent a pattern of abuse or false confessions, law enforcement techniques should be left to law enforcement," officials testified.
Advocates for mentally ill people said jurors should be able to see whether police coaxed a vulnerable suspect into confessing after hours of questioning.
"I am sure I could get most people with an intellectual disability to sign a confession to a crime they didn't commit," said Lynn Warner, executive director of the Arc Connecticut, an organization that supports people with mental disabilities.
But police officials said jurors may overlook a defendant's obvious guilt if they find they don't like something about a taped interrogation.
Law enforcement officials said two state police divisions and four police departments will start taping interrogations this year for a pilot program.
Further action is unlikely, partly because it would cost a lot to buy videotaping equipment for all police departments, Lawlor said.
But the committee could pass a bill mandating that the state Advisory Commission on Wrongful Convictions continue studying the issue for future legislation, Lawlor said.
"This is not something you want to do overnight," he said.
The second bill would force police to conduct photo lineups by showing a witness the photos one at a time instead of all at once. To avoid influencing the witness's choice, the lineup would have to be done by an officer who does not know which photo shows the suspect.
The bill has the partial backing of the Innocence Project, a New York group that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions. Judges have overturned 214 convictions in the United States, said Stephen Saloom, policy director for the Innocence Project. A faulty eyewitness identification played a role in 75 percent of those cases, Saloom testified.
There is debate over whether showing a witness photos one by one leads to more accurate identifications.
Studies seemed to favor the sequential approach until 2006, when police in Chicago issued a report showing that method might produce more mistaken identifications.
Many experts, including those at the Innocence Project, have rejected the Chicago report, but it stoked so much controversy that states are reluctant to enact the sequential procedure, experts testified last week.
Law enforcement officials also testified that it is "impractical" to require that the lineup supervisor know nothing about the case.
"The majority, if not all, detectives are well aware of major investigations," said John Danaher, commissioner of the state Department of Public Safety.
The bill would require the so-called "blind" supervisor only when "practicable" because smaller departments may have trouble finding an officer with no knowledge of the case, Lawlor said.
Police statewide have adjusted witness lineup protocols since 2005, when the state Supreme Court ruled judges could tell jurors about some irregularities, Lawlor said.
Police now routinely remind witnesses that the suspect may not be in the lineup.
Lawlor said it might be possible to pass the bill without the sequential provision. It would be another step toward cutting the number of wrongful convictions, he said.
"We have to keep the momentum going," Lawlor said.