Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Exoneration punctuates need for eyewitness ID reform

As if to punctuate the gravity of the error, the day after the Texas House killed legislation to require eyewitness ID reforms among police, Texas will see its 40th DNA exoneree (the 20th from Dallas) walk out of court a free man today. The Dallas News ("DNA testing clears Dallas County man in 1986 rape of SMU student," May 27) reports that:

Jerry Lee Evans matched the description of the man who abducted and raped a woman in Deep Ellum in 1986. He even had a similar speech impediment.

But today Evans, 47, is expected to walk out of the courtroom a free man because DNA testing shows he is not the man who raped an 18-year-old Southern Methodist University freshman at knifepoint.

As science has discovered more about how eyewitnesses really identify suspects, it's become clear, as the Justice Project's Edwin Colfax likes to say, that eyewitness testimony should be considered more like "trace" evidence which shoddy or biased collection methods can easily contaminate. That's what happened in this instance, said the News:

Dallas County prosecutors Tuesday pointed to questionable witness identification procedures as a leading reason for his wrongful conviction.

When the woman looked at a six-picture photo spread, Dallas police officers "were leading and encouraging" her to pick Evans out of the photo lineup, said Mike Ware, who oversees the DA's conviction integrity unit. Officers were also "enthusiastically encouraging" after the woman selected Evans.

The Dallas Police Department changed its policies this year in an attempt to eliminate intentional or unintentional encouragement of witnesses through words or body language. Now, photo lineups are shown by an officer not involved in the case and are shown sequentially.

Given that most Texas departments have no written policies on the topic, more law enforcement agencies need to follow Dallas' lead and create written procedures for photo lineups that require blind administration and other best practices.


Informed Citizen said...

Exonerations puctuate the need for:
Accountability of Public Servants. Primarily Judicial Officials & Prosecutors.
Until they are again bound by the Law, all the laws created by our Legislative Body are merely suggestions that will have no noticable effect in restoring our lost liberty. Our servants we continue to scoff at the law and make a mockery of our system.

Peter Bellamy said...

DNA, ID problems - all of these are just indicators of the more general problems that have plagued the prosecution and conviction of far too many in Texas. Even a Conviction Integrity Unit can only skim the surface of perhaps the most glaring examples of injustice - as the Dallas DNA programs are revealing:
see statement of Greg Wright Supporters released today:

UT1997 said...

I am amazed. With the exception of this blog and others and the Dallas Morning News, it seems as if NO ONE CARES that this good ole boy hell hole known as Texas leads the nation with now 40 DNA EXONERATIONS! Where is the outrage? Where are the demonstrations in Austin? Are Texans really that lazy and self-centered that they dont care? All I hear is mealy-mouthed legislators who increased payments to those wrongly imprisoned and some weak proposals for new eyewitness identification procedures. GIVE ME A TEXAS SIZE BREAK! How about a moratorium on capital punishment and ANY sentence where there is DNA involved until Texas gets is s&^t together? 40 IS NOT A SMALL NUMBER...40 IS CLEAR THAT THERE IS AN INSTITUTIONALIZED PROBLEM IN THIS STATE that NEEDS FIXED. HELLO? IS ANYONE LISTENING?

jay said...

when you have to start writing into law rules for police identification, your problems are much, much bigger.

Jacob said...

FROM DALLAS MORNING NEWS - “Evans was wrongly convicted in the 1986 rape of an 18-year-old Southern Methodist University freshman who was abducted on her way to go dancing in Deep Ellum, near downtown Dallas. Prosecutors now say that police told her to pick Evans out of a lineup."

Doesn't say much about mistaken identity Grits. It says the police TOLD HER TO LIE! TEXAS, WE HAVE A PROBLEM!

Angry Mother said...

I am the Mother of Robert Springsteen who has been incarcerated for almost 10 years.
The DNA show's that he and Michael Scott are innocent.
But do they do anything about it NO!
As UT1997 says NO ONE CARES- I guess the prosecution just doesn't want to find the person or people who really did it.
Thus making them look like what they really are.

Shawn said...

Angry Mother, I pray that your son is released soon. I know (somewhat) your sense of helplessness and frustration. The prosecutor shows the jurors the horrible crime that took place, the lives that were lost and wrecked because of it. Then the prosecutor pins the defendants face on a dart board and gives each juror a handful of darts and we call this justice.

I was wrongly convicted of a crime in Plano recently - based soley on eyewitness testimony. It has really shaken my faith in the justice system. We need this reform badly. It's really a no-brainer.

It seems that the system is less interested in accuracy and more interested in closing cases. I think everyone cuts corners on their job from time to time. When police do it, it affects lives. They cut corners and the effect is that the real truth can never be known (failure to gather evidence, incorrectly processing evidence, leading witnesses knowingly or unknowingly - you can't undo these things). Police don't have time to find the real truth - they have too many cases and not enough resources. So they take what they can get and they don't look back. They decide what the truth is and they won't accept anything that contradicts their truth. I think that's the sad, ugly predicament that we're in.

I don't know what the answer is, but eyewitness ID reform is definitely a step in the right direction.

Anonymous said...

No one told her who to choose. I was there. They tested only part of the DNA collected and didn't find a match within 24 hours he was free.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:56, I have no specific knowledge of the case but I know for sure your second sentence is false. No court works that fast on habeas claims.