Monday, May 21, 2007

Eyewitness Identification Would Make Good Interim Study Topic

Despite the rash of exonerations of innocent people serving long sentences in Texas prisons, the 80th Texas Legislature is about to close seven days from now having passed virtually no legislation to address the problem, and indeed possibly having passed several bills that make it more likely that innocent people will be convicted.

That's why I was sad to see SB 799 by Ellis died in the Calendars committee last night - the bill would have created a study group to develop best practices for eyewitness identification. That said, the folks on the study group may not have been the best people to develop these best practices, anyway (in particular the TCLEOSE director and Police Chiefs Association President's participation would have made the group pretty politicized).

The most common reason for wrongful convictions is faulty eyewitness testimony, and Texas police today are using the same, flawed lineup and eyewitness ID practices that generated the wrongful convictions being uncovered every few weeks now by examining old DNA evidence.

Texas doesn't need to wait for legislation to study this issue and develop recommendations. Police could rely on the work of other states like California which developed reform recommendations for lineup procedures last year. And at the capitol, one of the Texas legislative committees concerned with criminal justice should make the issue the subject of an "interim study," or a topic the standing committees research in-depth in between regular legislative sessions.

The most obvious home for such a study would be the Senate Criminal Justice Committee - SB 799's sponsor, Rodney Ellis, sits on that committee, and its members possess a great deal of experience on criminal justice topics that woud make them a logical place for that to happen. In the House, the logical committees would be Criminal Jursprudence or Law Enforcement.

Wherever or however it happens, the failure of SB 799 and SB 263 (Texas' Innocence Commission legislation) to pass should not end the discussion of how to prevent more wrongful convictions in Texas. It's my hope, in fact, that these bills' death serves to launch that discussion at the Texas Legislature in a serious way.

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