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WACO

Waco Police model department for bill to cut down wrongful convictions

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by Mark Wiggins

WACO - In a state which boasts more inmates exonerated by DNA evidence than any others, it's no surprise that lawmakers are now turning their attention to how innocent citizens wound up convicted in the first.

Texas has exonerated 44 people since DNA testing became available in the late 1990s, and in over 80 percent of the cases eyewitness identification has played a role in their conviction.

The most common method of getting an identification from a witness has long been the "line-up," where a witness is asked to point out the suspect from a battery of side-by-side photos of various individuals.

Research into the way humans remember faces and visual details is raising questions over how effective such methods are at identifying the correct subject and not an innocent person.

Dr. Charles Weaver is a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Baylor University whose expert testimony has been used to analyze eyewitness identification for over a decade.  Weaver says part of the problem with traditional lineups is that witnesses may be unintentionally influenced by factors other than their memory.

"We really store just a few bits and pieces of what happened, and then reconstruct a lot of the details," says Weaver.  "It's in the reconstruction that often times we'll get things wrong."

In 1999, the National Institute of Justice issued a study addressing that very problem, and listed a model set of parameters for conducting a more reliable lineup.  After a series of high-profile acquittals in Dallas that resulted from DNA evidence, many police departments updated their policies for photo line-ups.

The model policy is also the same one practiced by the Waco Police Department.  In order to minimize unintended influence over a witness, detectives unfamiliar with the case are assigned to conduct a "sequential presentation" of images. 

Before the presentation, witnesses are informed that the suspect may or may not be among the photos shown.  Photos are then shown one at a time, as opposed to all at once, to discourage making subconscious comparisons that aren't based on memory.

Waco Police spokesman Steve Anderson says the sequential presentation process raises the level of certainty that a witness must have before identifying a person as a criminal.

"It may be harder to pick out the person, but the last thing you want is to put an innocent person behind bars," says Anderson.

A new bill in the Texas Legislature would require every law enforcement agency in Texas to codify their eyewitness identification process.  Departments would have to either adapt a model like Waco's, or one that conforms to standards determined by the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas in Huntsville.

According to research by the National Prosecutors Association, anywhere from .75 to 3.3 percent of the nation's inmates are innocent people who have been wrongly convicted.  In a state the size of Texas, that means 1,200 to 5,000 innocent people could be behind bars.

Scott Henson, a public policy researcher with the Texas Innocence project, says the legislation is a much-needed step forward in reducing the amount of wrongful convictions.

"We're talking about reforming a type of evidence that is used on a wide-spread basis throughout the criminal justice system," says Henson.

McLennan County District Attorney Able Reyna says better procedures could make those eyewitnesses even more credible for prosecutors.

"By the time it gets to me, we've already had an identification most of the time," says Reyna.  "So in effect, it just makes that eyewitness identification more reliable, and then we can utilize that in the prosecution of the crime."

Reyna emphasizes that eyewitness identification is only one component of a successful trial, and says any legislation won't affect the number of cases prosecuted.

Weaver says the despite any headaches the bill might cause departments forced to catch up, the bill aims to make Texas a safer place.

"We don't want to convict people of crimes that they didn't do, and we do want the people who did commit the crimes to go to jail," says Weaver.  "For every false identity, there's a guilty person who didn't get convicted."

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