Monday, September 17, 2007

Most Georgia Cops Have No Eyewitness Guidelines

Despite the fact that the Innocence Project has exonerated six men in Georgia who were wrongfully convicted as a result of faulty eyewitness evidence, the majority of Georgia law enforcement agencies still lack even basic written guidelines for the collection of eyewitness evidence. A recent report found that 83% of the 296 Georgia law enforcement agencies surveyed have no specific guidelines to standardize eyewitness procedures.

In the past legislative session, the GA House of Representatives launched a study aimed at improving police procedures for the collection of eyewitness evidence, acknowledging the importance of reliable police practices in preventing wrongful convictions.

State lawmakers are considering legislation to tighten eyewitness guidelines on the heels of several high-profile cases in Georgia, and elsewhere across the country, where prisoners have been cleared by DNA evidence. Of the 205 people exonerated by post-conviction DNA evidence in the United States, 75 percent involved faulty eyewitness identification. Six of those were in Georgia.

Hearings began this morning, and will continue through mid-November (schedule here (PDF)). From the Georgia Innocence Project:
Presenters during the series of hearings include: Calvin Johnson, DNA Exoneree and Georgia Innocence Project Chairman-Elect (all six Georgia exonerees are invited to the first hearing); Barry Scheck, Co-Founder of the Innocence Project (New York), Aimee Maxwell, Executive Director of the Georgia Innocence Project, Jennifer Thompson Canino, victim in a rape case involving mistaken identification, Jeff Brickman, former DeKalb District Attorney involved in a wrongful conviction case, John Bankhead, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Butch Beach, Georgia Public Safety Training Council (see attached schedule for list of all presenters). The House Study Committee is chaired by : Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield from DeKalb County.

The legislative effort to bring about more reliable police procedures has also brought the spotlight back to Troy Davis, who still sits on Georgia's death row:
Most recently, questions about eyewitness identification have cast doubt on the conviction of Georgia death row inmate Troy Davis, who was found guilty of killing a police officer. He is awaiting a hearing before the Georgia Supreme Court. Davis' lawyers are asking for a new trial because they say several witnesses who initially testified against their client have since recanted or contradicted their testimony.

Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield fought to pass an eyewitness ID reform bill last year, but prosecutors inexplicably opposed the bill -- the express purpose of which was to make law enforcement practices more accurate -- and managed to kill it. Benfield has another shot this session, and led the study committee at the outset of the hearings this morning in Atlanta.

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