Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Court trends advise tempered enthusiasm for HB 34 eyewitness ID reforms

Does this sound like a suggestive photo array to put before a witness?

A witness described being robbed at gunpoint by a “[b]lack male, around 6-foot tall, 160 to 170 pounds, wearing a red hoodie and dark pants.” A suspect is arrested who wasn't wearing a red hoodie but had one in his bag. In the photo array shown to the witness, the suspect was wearing a red hoodie but the others were not. The witness picked out the suspect, but on cross-examination admitted her "best memory" of the defendant was of his red hoodie. On re-direct, the prosecutor gets her to say she clearly remembered his face as well and that was the basis of her identification.

This is the kind of suggestive lineup that, when your correspondent was Policy Director for the Innocence Project of Texas, we found to underlie false convictions of exoneree after exoneree. But the Fourteenth Court of Appeals found that lineup was permissible in Fisher v. State. And though IANAL, Grits considers it perfectly in line with Texas Court of Criminal Appeals jurisprudence on the topic. They've created a five pronged balancing test and flagrantly ignoring one of the prongs is generally outweighed by even minimal compliance with the others.

That's what makes Grits pessimistic, sad to say, that changes to the law passed this session regarding eyewitness identification standards will keep questionable IDs out of the courtroom. As Elizabeth Loftus, a pioneer of experimental research on eyewitness identification, wrote in her classic text, Eyewitness Testimony (p. 9): "Juries have been known to accept eyewitness testimony pointing to guilt even when it is far outweighed by evidence of innocence." That's been true of several prominent Texas exonerations in which jurors believed erroneous eyewitness testimony over valid alibi testimony. So keeping flawed and biased eyewitness testimony out of earshot of jurors is the only real way to prevent the error.

Under HB 34, the model policy recommended to Texas law enforcement agencies would require that photos in a lineup array:
(i) are consistent in appearance with the description of the alleged perpetrator that was provided by a witness; and
(ii) do not make the suspect noticeably stand out;
But that's only a recommended policy, they're not obligated to adopt it. And as the 14th Court of Appeals pointed out, "the clear weight of Texas authority" leans toward allowing identifications into evidence, even when lineups exhibit those obvious flaws. In Fisher, the defendant was the only person in the lineup wearing a red hoodie similar to the one described by the witness in a statement. Indeed, since he wasn't wearing the hoodie when he was arrested, police appear to have had him put it on for purposes of taking the photo. So making the subject stand out because of the hoodie may even have been intentional. No matter. Though IANAL, Grits sees nothing in HB 34 which would cause Texas courts to begin excluding testimony based on these sorts of flawed ID practices.

The Texas District and County Attorney Association's brief commentary on the case demonstrates how easy it would be to avoid these problems:
Good procedures at your jail can ensure that the photos used in lineups aren’t subject to attack this way. The modern trend seems to be the use of a towel or smock to ensure that witnesses don’t fixate on the shirt worn by the suspect.
Even so, the Court of Criminal Appeals has balked at excluding testimony based on suggestive IDs, despite evidence that they underlie so many false convictions. And the Legislature has refused to put teeth into eyewitness ID reforms by applying Texas' statutory exclusionary rule when proper procedures aren't followed. So Texas courts go forward knowing that some percentage of erroneous IDs and false convictions could be prevented if the Legislature or the CCA would just put their foot down.

Making it all advisory, suggested policies, etc., without having the exclusionary rule apply or even requiring jury instructions when suggestive lineups are allowed into evidence means these reforms don't have a lot of teeth. One supposes they contribute to a general professionalizing trend in law enforcement, but they explicitly don't require it. And judging from the workaday ruling in Fisher v. State, the courts aren't about to demand it on their own.

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