Public hearing to evaluate eyewitness ID model policy

From: Grits For Breakfast

Tomorrow I’ll be spending my afternoon at a public hearing  at the capitol to discuss the draft model policy on eyewitness identification procedures for potential use by Texas law-enforcement agencies. In the statute, HB 215, the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) out of Sam Houston State was charged with creating a model policy, with input from law enforcement and special interests like my employers at the Innocence Project of Texas (I participated in their working group as part of my day job). They’ll receive public comment through tomorrow’s hearing and then come up with a final version in the next couple of weeks.

Hopefully the MSM will pick up on the story, which hasn’t yet gotten a lot of attention but which will affect law-enforcement agencies in every corner of the state. Here are the public hearing details if you’re interested in attending, either to testify or just to watch:

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WHAT:          Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute (LEMIT) will hold public hearings on its new eyewitness identification policy.
WHO:             Cory Session, Innocence Project of Texas Policy Director; Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project Senior Policy Advocate for State Affairs; Michele Mallin, a rape victim whose eyewitness testimony lead to Timothy Cole’s wrongful conviction; Seven Texas exonerees: Charles Chatman, James Giles, Johnnie Lindsey, Johnnie Pinchback, Christopher Scott, Billy Smith and James Waller.
WHEN:          Thursday, December 1, 2011
1:00-4:00 p.m.
6:00-9:00 p.m.
WHERE:       State Capitol
                        House Hearing Room E2.030 (located in the Capitol Extension)
                        Austin, TX

It’s nice of them to add the extra time in the evening for folks who can’t make it there during the workday, but I know most of the experts, exonerees and advocates, your correspondent included, are planning to testify in the afternoon session.

Once LEMIT has published its model policy, local law enforcement agencies must produce their own departmental policies by September of next year. Those policies don’t have to use language from LEMIT’s model, but if history is any guide, most of them will. (The Innocence Project of Texas plans to request all those local policies – more than 1,000 of them – under open records next fall to determine which departments included all the important elements and which ones are still using inadequate procedures.)

For many years eyewitness testimony was considered gold standard evidence in court. Today, scientists understand that it’s really a form of “trace” evidence, and like any trace evidence it can be contaminated during its collection. In this case, though, rubber gloves, tweezers and zip-locs won’t do the trick. Enacting procedures like those required in the new law and actively training detectives on acceptable methods is the only long-term way to change what’s happening at the police station when these lineups are performed.

If LEMIT’s model and local departmental policies, in their final form, end up based on nationally recognized best practices, as the legislation clearly calls for – including criteria for filler choice, blind administration, sequential presentation, witness admonishments, the gathering of confidence statements, etc. – it will improve the reliability of  eyewitness testimony by reducing (though not eliminating) errors on the front end. As a practical matter, every false accusation prevented on the front end is far preferable to exonerations decades after the fact, which are endlessly thrilling but also always bittersweet.

I’ll update this post later today to add a link to the IPOT’s written testimony, which I’m presently finalizing, and with a link to a live video feed for tomorrow if and when I find one.