As the number of post-conviction DNA exonerations rose ever higher, the 82nd Legislature took action to prevent more people from being wrongfully convicted. Lawmakers passed House Bill 215.
How well law enforcement agencies across the state are taking the new law about eyewitness identifications to heart will soon be the subject of a report by the Innocence Project of Texas (IPOT).
On the last Saturday in September, about 35 law students and other volunteers gathered at the University of Dallas to critique the written policies for eyewitness identifications for about 1,200 law enforcement agencies throughout the state. The new law mandating the written policies went into effect Sept. 1.
False eyewitness identifications are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions, based on reviews of post-conviction DNA exonerations, according to Scott Henson, IPOT’s policy advisor.
On Friday, Sept. 28 – the evening before the gathering in Dallas – the national Innocence Project in New York announced that yet another inmate had just been proven innocent of the crime that he had been accused of committing. Damon Thibodeaux, a resident of Louisiana’s death row, became the nation’s 300th DNA exoneree.
During the month of September, IPOT had submitted Open Records requests to sheriff’s offices and city and campus police departments to obtain copies of their newly adopted eyewitness ID policies.
The scoring criteria used in critiquing the policies involved how closely the agencies followed the model program created by the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT), based at Sam Houston State University. LEMIT was created by the 70th Legislature to develop the skills of current and future law enforcement officials.
The model program incorporates evidence-based and best practices for collecting and preserving eyewitness evidence, as well as procedures for when witnesses or victims have language or writing barriers.
IPOT Executive Director Nick Vilbas and founder Jeff Blackburn said that IPOT will release a report with the individual grades of the law enforcement agencies before the end of the year. They hope that media outlets will publicize the scores received by the law enforcement agencies in their communities.
“It’s a grass roots level, public education component,” said Vilbas. “We’re trying to push the ball forward. We’ve been talking about it since the bill passed and now that we’re doing it, it’s kind of exciting.”
Henson said that, among the first 250 DNA exonerations, 75 to 80 percent of the wrongful convictions were traced back to faulty eyewitness ID.
“The DNA exonerations have provided this window into the cause of wrongful convictions that we’ve never had before,” he said.
IPOT’s policy advisor said that measures are being taken to ensure that the scores are fair.
“The student grading is not the final say. We are also going to have a final round vetting the policies to make sure that the students got it right,” he said. “You really want to go through each policy multiple times before publishing a grade so you can be certain that your criticisms are correct.”
Henson, who lives in Austin and writes a blog on justice-related issues called “Grits for Breakfast,” said that most law enforcement agencies have not reacted defensively to the examination of their techniques. Most, too, appear to be trying to follow LEMIT’s model, he stated.
“There are definitely exceptions,” said Henson. “But the majority have passed policies that have most of the main elements of the model policy.”
Kathy Cruz is a staff writer for the Hood County News in Granbury. She can be reached at [email protected]