Effort to eliminate wrongful convictions moves ahead at the Capitol

Legislation aimed at eliminating wrongful convictions based on faulty eyewitness identifications advanced unanimously Monday in committee, a victory for advocates who’ve tried for years to improve Georgia’s record.

Senate Bill 94 would for the first time require all law enforcement agencies in the state to adopt “best practices” about how victims pick alleged criminals out of a lineup. The bill essentially sets a minimum for those efforts, with the aim to reduce outside factors that inadvertently influence a witness’ decision to falsely identify someone in the lineup. They include:

  • Ensuring someone who does not know the identity of the suspect conducts the lineup.
  • Telling a witness that the suspect may be — and may not be — in the lineup.
  • Making sure a lineup has “fillers” that generally resemble the witness’ description of the suspect.

Eight Georgians since 1999 have been exonerated by DNA evidence after being misidentified by a victim or a witness and wrongfully convicted of a crime. It’s a problem that has rendered heart-wrenching tales, cost the state millions of dollars in compensation and raised questions about the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

It’s also not just a Georgia problem. The Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to clearing wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing, has so far helped exonerate 325 people. The project’s Rebecca Brown, who has testified across the nation on the issue, said misidentification was the leading cause in those cases.

“When a person is wrongfully convicted, the real perpetrator is still out there,” Brown said, adding that many of those perpetrators go on to commit additional violent crimes. Using Georgia’s eight exonerations as an example, Brown said three of the four real perpetrators caught in those cases had gone on to commit six additional rapes before being nabbed.

In 2008, after failed attempts to pass similar legislation, the Georgia Peace Officers Standards and Training Council addressed the problem on its own and began to require law enforcement officers seeking management and supervisory certifications, as well as officers receiving criminal investigation training, to get instruction on new eyewitness identification procedures.

Additionally, the council made the training a prerequisite for all officers seeking recertification.

But lawmakers have never put those requirements into law. The bill’s supporters are hoping that changes this year. Law enforcement advocates are on board, as are advocates for those wrongfully convicted of crimes.

“Ordinarily, people would think we’re a different sheet of music,” said Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police. “But this is a well-crafted bill that sets the ground rules.”

With passage Monday out of the Senate Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, SB 94 now heads to the powerful Rules Committee for consideration of whether it will be voted on by the chamber. State Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, is the bill’s sponsor.

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