Tuesday, January 15, 2008

How many tragedies must befall innocent people from false eyewitness IDs before police use scientifically valid methods?

I've been focused on Texas-based exonerations of wrongfully convicted inmates, especially in Dallas, but my brother brings word of another case just a couple of hours east of Dallas down I-20 in Shreveport, LA, where Rickey Johnson, 52, just got out of prison after doing 25 years of a life sentence for a sexual assault he didn't commit ("Leesville man freed after wrongful conviction," Shreveport Times, Jan. 12)

A rape victim made a positive identification that Johnson was her assailant, but:
DNA testing completed Dec. 21 determined that the Leesville man could not have raped a Many woman on July 12, 1982. The man who did was convicted in May 1984 of committing an aggravated rape April 30, 1983, at the same apartment complex
How many more such cases must we see before police practices and the rules of evidence are changed to strengthen eyewitness identifications?

What good argument is there for police not using double-blind lineup procedures with neutral administrators?

Given how many eyewitnesses simply get their ID's wrong, when will the Legislature require corroboration for victims who did not previously know the assailant (or for that matter, for informants who cut a deal for their testimony)?

I'd asked in a recent post how a value could be placed on wrongful convictions, and quoted my father, a civil defense attorney who said tort law allows compensation, among other things, for "lost consortium" with one's family and a more general loss of "companionship and society." Putting aside the legalese, what does that really mean? Here's an example:
During his 25 years of incarceration, Johnson has missed watching his four children grow. One was born just after he went to jail. He's kept in touch as best he could.

One son, a LSU engineering graduate, just moved to Baton Rouge. "I'm the only one he has now since his mother has passed."

And, of course, there are the grandchildren that he's never met.
How can this fellow ever really be compensated for what was taken from him? In my opinion, it's impossible, no matter how much money he's ultimately awarded (if any). He and others in his position deserve a legacy for what happened to them, not just a settlement.

The only way to adequately honor such an unfathomable loss is to strengthen protections against it happening again, adjusting policies and practices within the system that allowed his wrongful conviction to occur.
Otherwise, compensating payments come to be considered just part of the cost of doing business (it's OPM - other people's money - to the pols, after all), and more wrongful convictions become nearly inevitable.

We know why wrongful convictions occur. What's missing is the political will from either major party to do what' necessary to minimize them in the future.

MORE: For more information on improved eyewitness identification practices see the website of UT El Paso's Eyewitness Identification Research Laboratory.


JoshSN said...

I know what double blind means in the social sciences. I understand it would mean the cop would have no idea who was contained in the lineup (that would mean there could be no cops in the lineup they knew) but what's the other blind?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good question! That's the phrase the social scientists studying the issue always use, and I suppose I just adopted it without thinking about it.

According to this NIJ publication, "In a 'double-blind' lineup ... neither the administrator nor the witness knows the identity of the suspect, and so the administrator cannot influence the witness in any way."

I've also seen the phrase "blind sequential lineups," whether using people or photos, which may be a more accurate description of what they're really doing compared to, say, a "double-blind" clinical drug trial.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits,
How can I contact you? It is REALLY important.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The email is in the sidebar, its shenson[at]austin.rr.com.

I've been terrible about responding lately, as the blog readership has expanded to where I can't really keep up any longer. I feel bad about that but there it is.

Also, if your looking for help on an individual legal case, I REALLY can't help. I'm not a lawyer and I get so many such requests I couldn't begin to do that, and don't want to. But within those parameters, email away!

Anonymous said...

Better a hundred guilty men go free than one innocent man goes to prison. Carries a ton of meaning in relation to Dallas and the Louisiana story you cited. As for double-blind ... with the track record for eyewitness ID maybe just plain BLIND would be better.

Anonymous said...

Hey Grits,

Did you get my email?