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State to study eyewitness ID laws

by Dave Williams, The Albany Herald, December 31, 2007

ATLANTA — In September, three former inmates in Georgia’s prison system appeared before a legislative study committee.

All were convicted based on eyewitness identifications, then spent years behind bars before being exonerated by DNA testing, a technology that didnt exist when they were locked up.

That was the first hearing of a study committee created to look for ways to improve eyewitness identification procedures.

This month, John White, another newly released former inmate convicted on eyewitness testimony and cleared by DNA testing, was among the witnesses at the panel’s final meeting.

Even in a General Assembly with a reputation for being tough on crime, those are more than enough examples for why action is needed during the coming session to prevent such injustices in the future, said Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, the study committee’s chairman.

And why even law-and-order Georgia voters will demand it, said Benfield, D-Decatur.

“People who served collectively over 100 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit have gotten the public’s attention,” she said. “I don’t think the public likes to see the wrong people convicted.”

What emerged from the study committee was legislation that would require law enforcement agencies in Georgia to develop written procedures for conducting eyewitness identifications.

During the panel’s first meeting, an organization that has been pushing for standardized rules presented a survey showing that 83 percent of the state’s police and sheriff’s departments don’t have written procedures.

Without such guidelines, it’s easy for an officer to make a mistake, said Aimee Maxwell, executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project.

She said an eyewitness could easily misconstrue even a seemingly innocent comment by an officer, such as “Good job,” as verifying that the witness has picked out the right suspect when the officer might simply be thanking him or her for showing up.

“A lot of times, it happens with them not even realizing it,” Maxwell said.

Once written procedures are established, the bill also would require that officers who conduct eyewitness identifications are trained in how to carry them out.

Benfield said many agencies today only provide a 30-minute crash course to officers at the beginning of their training.

“It really comes down to training,” she said. “You can have all the policies you want, but unless the police officers on the front line are trained in how to carry out these procedures, it’s not going to make a difference.”

White became the seventh Georgia inmate to be exonerated through DNA testing when he was released this month after being wrongfully convicted in the brutal rape, beating and robbery of a Meriwether County woman in 1979.

The only evidence against him was the eyewitness testimony of the 74-year-old victim, who wasn’t wearing her glasses at the time she was attacked.

As it turns out, another man who was in the police lineup with White, James Edward Parham, has now been arrested in the case, after being linked to the crime scene by DNA testing.

After he wasn’t picked out of the lineup, Parham went on to rape another woman six years after White was sent to prison.

Maxwell said that’s why tightening up on eyewitness identification procedures should be seen not as going easier on criminal suspects, but as a law-and-order measure.

“It’s giving law enforcement the very best tools to use to do their job,” she said.

Benfield said the bill will be accompanied by a resolution listing “best practices” that law enforcement agencies have adopted for conducting eyewitness identifications. However, those are intended as suggestions and not mandates, she said.

“It is not our intent to try to micromanage from the state Capitol how law enforcement does their job,” said Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, chairman of the House committee with jurisdiction over criminal law. “What we’re trying to do is put in some safeguards ... to ensure a higher degree of accuracy with these procedures.”

Ralston’s committee already has held a hearing on Benfield’s legislation. He said he wants the panel to take up the issue early in the 2008 session, which begins on Jan. 14.

Benfield said she’s optimistic about her legislation’s prospects.

“I think I’ve got a good shot at passing something this year,” she said.