Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Debate over eyewitness reforms based on conflicting agendas, not disputed science

Ben Hiltzheimer at the Eyewitness ID blog rightly says that when it comes to debates about reforming eyewitness identification procedures, "the 'disagreement' is one of conflicting agendas, not unresolved questions of science." Eye ID insightfully compares prosecutors' position to that of the tobacco industry:
To the extent that there is disagreement on this point, it is not a disagreement among scientists or any sort of conflict in empirical findings. Rather, it is an objection by prosecutors at the audacity of scientists who dare to suggest that science should inform criminal justice policy. After all, the Chicago Police Department has been doing lineups for decades. Who are these scientists to tell them their procedures are flawed? It's like a bunch of M.D.s telling cigarette manufacturers that smoking causes cancer. ...

To characterize the status of the debate as "not yet resolved" is to fall prey to the prosecutorial agenda to resist reform at any cost; it's tantamount to concluding that the smoking/cancer link has yet to be established because Philip Morris executives find that fact to be in conflict with their profit motive. Except that it's a little less clear what interest is being protected by the prosecutors who resist lineup reforms, since presumably they share the interest in prosecuting actual criminals, while protecting the innocent.
In my experience with Texas government, Hiltzheimer nails the political dynamic: Police and prosecutor lobby groups resist reform "at any cost" save for supporting the twin, one-way ratchets of reducing civil liberties and increasing criminal penalties, their solutions to every problem.

On the question of eyewitness identification procedures, I also agree that prosecutor opposition to procedural improvements seems insensible considering their job is to accuse the guilty and protect the innocent. Police and DA interest groups frequently seem to oppose such reforms reflexively, more out of habit than from any thoughtful consideration.

A bill to create a study group in Texas to propose lineup reforms, SB 799, passed the Senate and the House Law Enforcement Committee in 2007, but was never scheduled by the House Calendars Committee for a floor vote. (Related legislation to create a statewide "Innocence Commission" died in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.) I'm hoping some committee chair in the Texas Legislature will select this as an interim study topic.

We know Texas has experienced wrongful convictions, probably many more than we know about. We know that faulty eyewitness testimony has been at the center of most of these cases. Finally, writes Hiltzheimer, we know that "Every peer reviewed study on the topic" agrees that "that sequential lineup procedures are less likely to put innocent people in prison." In Dallas, "almost all of those exonerated were convicted with eyewitness testimony that proved to be wrong." That includes victims' testimony as well as independent witnesses.

So why would those in law enforcement risk their credibility by opposing research-based best practices? Perhaps it's because they fear old cases done under old methods might be put in jeopardy, but honestly I'm often perplexed at their motive, not to mention the intensity with which they dislike legislation aimed at reducing wrongful convictions.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The prosecutor's job is to get convictions, period.

Important people will never be arrested, or if they are arrested things will be cleared up and they'll be released, with apologies.

Only unimportant people get arrested, jailed, tried, convicted, sentenced, paroled, 'violated', and jailed again.

If we don't scare the unwashed masses into fearing us, how can we hope to rule them?