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State House Committee Approves Eyewitness ID Reforms

By Jonathan Springston, Senior Staff Writer, The Atlanta Progressive News (February 09, 2008)

(APN) ATLANTA – A Georgia House of Representatives committee approved two pieces of legislation Wednesday, February 06, 2008, that seek reforms in eyewitness identification reform.

The Non-Civil Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to approve HB 997 and 10 to 5 to approve HR 1071. The legislation now heads to the House Rules Committee for consideration with a favorable recommendation.

State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-District 85), author of the legislation, told Atlanta Progressive News she will meet in the coming days with State Rep. Earl Ehrhart (R-District 36), Chairman of the powerful Rules Committee, to discuss her legislation.

The bill, the Witness Identification Accuracy Enhancement Act, calls for the Georgia Peace Officer standards and Training Council to establish guidelines and procedures for conducting showups, photographic lineups, and physical lineups.

It also calls on the Georgia Public Safety Training Center to work with the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of the State of Georgia to develop a comprehensive in-service training program for providing instruction on such procedures.

The resolution–the other piece of legislation–outlines best practices for conducting show-ups, photographic lineups, and physical lineups and urges all law enforcement agencies to develop and implement written policies using standards outlined in the resolution as a guide.

Both the bill and resolution are the result of nearly a year’s worth of meetings of the House Study Committee on Eyewitness Identification Procedures, of which Benfield was the Chair.

The Study Committee met with national experts on eyewitness identification procedures as well as judges, attorneys, sheriffs, and other law enforcement officials throughout most of 2007.

Benfield brought the legislation before the Non-Civil Judiciary Committee for a vote on January 30, 2008, but pulled it off the agenda after prosecutors and sheriffs raised last minute objections to language in the resolution and bill.

She met with both parties on February 4, 2008, to hammer out the differences and ended up making only small changes that did not drastically alter the legislation.

It now puts the prosecutors’ council with the public safety training center to develop a training program.

Benfield noted Wednesday the resolution has been cut down to “the bare essentials” of what her study committee determined from experts to be best practices for conducting identification procedures.

Terry Norris, executive vice president of the Georgia Sheriff’s Association, said Wednesday that sheriffs agree with the bill but still have a problem with the resolution.

Norris told Committee Members that while the resolution is not legally binding, he still feels the State is dictating to law enforcement what to do.

State Rep. Roberta Abdul-Salaam (D-District 74), a Committee Member, reiterated the true intent of the resolution.

"The purpose of this resolution is to prevent the person sitting next to you from serving 20 years for a crime they didn’t commit," she said.

WRONGFUL ID SENDING INNOCENT TO PRISON

On hand for the vote Wednesday was one Georgia citizen who spent 21 years in prison for a crime he did not commit thanks to wrongful eyewitness identification.

Willie O. “Pete” Williams was released from prison in January 2007 after DNA evidence proved he did not commit a 1985 rape for which he was convicted.

On the heels of Williams’s release, Robert Clark received compensation totaling $1.2 million from the Georgia House in March 2007 after spending 23 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.

DNA evidence also exonerated Clark, who was convicted of a 1981 rape after the victim wrongly identified him as her attacker.

The State House Committee on Appropriations is considering a resolution crafted by Rep. Steve “Thunder” Tumlin (R-District 38) this Session that would award Williams $1.2 million in compensation for his time in prison.

MANY AGENCIES LACK WRITTEN PROCEDURES

A law enforcement survey conducted by the Georgia Innocence Project last year found that 82 percent of law enforcement agencies in Georgia have no written procedures governing the collection of eyewitness evidence using live, photographic, or one-on-one show-up identifications.

Only 11 percent of agencies have policies governing collection of all three. The Atlanta Police Department (APD) is one such agency that has written policies for all three situations.

Atlanta Progressive News examined the APD’s policies and note they differ only slightly from recommendations for best practices made in HR 1071.

For example, while officers are instructed not to give any verbal or physical cues that might direct a witness to identify a suspect in a physical lineup, the officer conducting the physical lineup knows which is the suspect.

The officer allows the suspect to pick his or her own position in a physical lineup and must inform other lineup participants to not give any physical or verbal cues that might give the identity of the suspect away.

HR 1071 recommends the person administering the test not know if a suspect is in any lineup. It also recommends the administrator inform the witness that the suspect may not be in a lineup and that the witness does not have to make an identification.

The APD is one of only three police departments in Fulton County that has written procedures of any kind, out of 17 total departments.

Only three of 13 in DeKalb, one of nine in Clayton, four of 11 in Cobb, and 3 of 9 in Gwinnett have written procedures of some kind.

Mistaken eyewitness identifications have contributed to over 75 percent of the more than 185 wrongful convictions in the United States overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence, according to The Southern Center for Human Rights.

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com.

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