It’s common knowledge that post-conviction DNA testing has exonerated dozens of people serving time for crimes they didn’t commit. Less commonly known is that, according to The Innocence Project, the vast majority of people wrongly convicted of a crime and subsequently exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence were convicted on the basis of faulty eyewitness testimony.
In its Thursday edition, the daily online publication Stateline, a product of the Pew Center for the States, notes that “(s)ince 1989, 273 people have been exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing. In about 75 percent of the exonerations, according to the Innocence Project, faulty eyewitness testimony was a determining piece of evidence that sent an innocent person to prison.”
The reasons for mistaken identification are readily understandable. “Factors such as poor lighting at the crime scene, the emotional and mental state of a person who has witnessed a crime and racial bias all have been found to lead to incorrect identifications and potential wrongful convictions,” the Stateline report observes.
Additionally, police procedure – or, more accurately, the lack of a specified procedure – can lead to misidentification and subsequent wrongful conviction. According to the Stateline report, “subtle affirmations” from police officers conducting lineups, “such as nods or telling a witness he or she did a good job, have been shown to coax people into making false identifications.”
Happily enough, Georgia is among the states that have recognized problems associated with eyewitness identification. Three years ago, in a move the Stateline story says was related in part to the Troy Davis case – Davis, convicted of the 1989 slaying of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail and executed Wednesday, was sent to prison in part on the basis of eyewitness identification considered problematic in some quarters – the Georgia Peace Office Standards and Training Council adopted evidence-based eyewitness identification practices as part of its training program.
The training, which police departments can choose to have, or not have, is aimed at addressing the shortcomings inherent in some police lineup practices.
That’s a marked difference from states like Florida, where law enforcement groups this year “succeeded in quashing a ... bill aimed at amending their lineup practices,” according to the Stateline report. Also according to Stateline, “(t)he same pushback occurred earlier this year in Massachusetts when police organizations objected to a bill (addressing) ... an eyewitness identification procedure.”
In fairness, it’s easy to understand why law-enforcement officers don’t necessarily want legislators to exercise control over police procedures. Putting mandatory controls over those procedures in place can be seen as questioning the professionalism of police personnel, and an overly detailed protocol could put officers who fail to implement even a small part of that procedure into legal jeopardy.
Still, given the strides that Georgia has taken already regarding eyewitness identification, it should be possible to craft a legislatively mandated protocol that wouldn’t unduly hamper law enforcement personnel. Perhaps such an effort should be undertaken in an upcoming legislative session.