Friday, May 06, 2011

Time to pass eyewitness ID reforms

KCEN-TV had a feature this week about the eyewitness ID legislation pending in the Texas Legislature, focusing on the story of Tyler-native A.B. Butler:
His name was cleared after spending more than 16 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

The victim picked him out of a lineup and told police she thought he was her rapist and kidnapper. On the stand, A.B. can recall her lack of conviction. 

"She said I looked like the person that did it. That I was awfully close but she wasn't sure."

Unfortunately for A.B., the shaky testimony was enough to put him away.
Butler was later exonerated by DNA testing. Reporter Rebecca Schleicher posed the question:
How is it that so many witnesses name the wrong person? The problem is memory: it often has holes and it's easy to manipulate what you're sure you saw.

"Our ability to remember perceptual details like what somebody looks like is not very good," said memory expert Dr. Charles Weaver.

He specializes in witness identification, and has testified in many cases on the subject. He says our memories only record bits and pieces of what happen, and he gave me a test to prove it.

He showed me a video by Gary Wells that gives viewers a glimpse of a fake crime. Then asked me to pick out who did it, showing six similar-featured men.

I picked out the first man in the group, who turned out to be innocent. Weaver then told me that none of the men were in fact the criminal I witnessed, but he isn't surprised at my choice. 

"When I asked you who did it, there's this belief that it's got to be one of the six."

Research shows that when the options are on the table, witnesses make comparisons and pick out the closest-featured person to what they recall.
Regular readers know both the Texas House and the Senate have approved versions of legislation to require law enforcement agencies to enact policies for live and photo lineups based on well-established best practices. But one of those bills must be approved by the second chamber before it heads to the Governor for his signature. There's still time for the legislation to pass, and the fact that both chambers have already approved the idea is an encouraging sign. But the legislation also appeared to be in good shape in 2009 before the House of Representatives melted down over the Voter ID debate, and there are plenty of issues (the budget, Congressional redistricting, etc.) that could cause the same thing to happen this time around. Good intentions are fine, but the road to hell is paved with them. Meanwhile, there's little doubt false convictions are still being secured based on erroneous witness IDs, and every day the Lege delays requiring reform makes it that much more likely more people will be falsely accused. Time to pass this sucker and start the process of implementing best practices for lineup procedures at local law-enforcement agencies.


MaxM said...

I know you have touched on this but it seems to me that beyond the horror of lockig up the wrong person and letting the real criminal run free, there is also a dollar and cents reason to fix this - trials cost tax payer money. If I were a prosecutor I'd rather see practise, even if they cost money, used up front to rule out witness error rather than waste even more money, time and a persons life if there is even a chance we have the wrong person

Anonymous said...

Eyewitnesses piss me off too.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:03, who benefits if the wrong person is picked and the real perp goes free? Surely you can wrap your tiny mind around the concept that convicting the right person ought to be a priority.

Anonymous said...

Grits, Do you know the bill number?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

HB 215 has passed the House and is in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. SB 121 has passed the Senate and has been referred to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, Yes it is time. While it might not help past (VOTS) 'victims of the system' with non-DNA related claims of actual innocence, it has definitely shined a spot light in our direction.

Re: Reporter Rebecca Schleicher posed the question:
"How is it that so many witnesses name the wrong person?" -
Yes memory and the manipulation of it plays a role in certain cases. But, it should be noted that there are Police Incident Reports showing arrogant detective(s)
rightfully pointing out (but ignoring) gross discrepancies and
knowingly & willingly obtaining charges. We can only hope & pray this bill passes the HCJC and ultimately prevents.