Friday, July 31, 2009

Death of a bill

In the most recent biennial session of the Texas Legislature, a bill commissioning an institute at Sam Houston State University (a school with one of the premier criminal justice programs in the nation) to develop best practices in both live line-up and photo-array identifications, died on the floor after a fight to defeat a voter ID bill.

The proposed legislation would have required law enforcement agencies to follow the institute's findings in developing their own written procedures governing how line-ups would be conducted.

Researchers say it is important that the officer presenting the lineup not know details of the case or who police suspect, so as not to consciously or unconsciously influence the witness.

It's also important to specifically warn the witness that the perpetrator may not be among the photos shown or among the suspects presented in a live lineup.

So why would anyone object to a law that would require law enforcement to use the best scientifically proven techniques?

In the last 15 years, 39 Texas convictions were overturned by DNA evidence. All six Harris County convictions overturned hinged upon false eyewitness identifications.

Back in March, I wrote a piece that incorporated six safeguards The Justice Project called for regarding eyewitness identifications. Those safeguards are:

  • Law enforcement agencies should document lineups or photo arrays by providing the photos used in a photo array or a photograph of the live lineup as well as all dialogue and witness statements made during the procedure.
  • Law enforcement agencies should inform eyewitnesses, prior to viewing a live lineup or photo array that the accused may or may not be in the lineup. Eyewitnesses should not feel compelled to make an identification.
  • Lineups and photo arrays should be composed "fairly." The report calls for fillers to be selected based not on their resemblance to the accused but, instead, on their resemblence to the description provided by eyewitnesses.
  • The person conducting the lineup or photo array should not know the identity of the accused. Having a "blind" person conduct the lineup reduces the chances of the officer influencing the results of the lineup or photo array.
  • Law enforcement agencies should avoid exposing eyewitnesses to multiple viewings of the accused.
  • Law enforcement agencies should consider using sequential arrays instead of traditional arrays. In a sequential array, an eyewitness views one individual at a time which prevents the witness from making an identification through process of elimination.

Gary Blankinship, president of the Houston Police Officer's Union, claims credit for killing the bill in Badge and Gun, the union's official publication. This claim despite the fact the bill made it through both a House committe and the (all) powerful Calendar committee before dying on the floor.

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