By Rebecca Brown, Innocence Project Policy Analyst
I’m writing from Louisville, Kentucky, where today I addressed attendees at “Advancing Justice,” a statewide conference on criminal justice reform issues. Hosted by the University of Louisville, and co-sponsored by the Salmon P. Chase College of Law, the University of Kentucky College of Law and Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice and Safety, today’s conference should be a national model for opening dialogue on critical reforms with all key stakeholders in a state’s criminal justice community.
The conference organizers ensured lively conversations throughout the day by bringing together a diverse group of professionals committed to the integrity of Kentucky’s criminal justice process. Attendees included judges, law enforcement professionals, legislators, lawyers from both sides of the table, civic leaders, victims’ rights advocates and members of the innocence community. I am inspired by the energy they all bring to the process of criminal justice reform in Kentucky and the inevitable cross-pollination of ideas when such a group is brought together.
State and national leaders here today identified a set of remedies that can create a more accurate and fair system. Let’s hope that the momentum continues beyond today and these reforms become reality. The primary topics covered were eyewitness identification procedures, the benefits of properly preserving biological evidence, and the value of forming a statewide innocence commission. Notable national figures were in attendance to contribute valuable insights on each issue and provide specific examples of how similar reforms have been implemented in other states.
We first heard this morning from Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, a victim of rape who mistakenly identified the wrong man, Ronald Cotton, in two different trials in the 1980s. Her suffering from this crime was renewed when she learned that Cotton had spent more than a decade behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. But Ms. Thompson-Cannino was committed to ensuring that some good come from this tragedy. She became a staunch advocate for eyewitness identification reform and has candidly and courageously spoken to audiences nationwide about the pain those misidentifications caused her personally. Several people at today’s conference told me that her story powerfully illustrates how misidentification harms not only the innocent, but crime victims, their families, and the community at large.
Indeed, eyewitness misidentifications have contributed to more than 75% of the wrongful convictions later overturned through DNA testing. To address this, reforms to eyewitness identification protocols grounded in scientific research have become standard procedure in a number of states across the country. Gary Wells, a psychology scholar who has researched the issue of misidentification for more than 25 years and worked with law enforcement and prosecutors in more than a dozen states, briefed attendees today on cutting-edge advances in the field of eyewitness identification research and also about proven practices to reduce misidentifications.
As I discussed at today’s conference, another significant issue that hampers the fair administration of justice is the improper preservation of biological evidence. Despite DNA technology having transformed the power of preserved biological evidence to solve cold cases and enable us to check credible claims of innocence, many jurisdictions’ preservation practices have not changed since before this was true. As a result, they must struggle to locate that evidence in their possession which can solve crimes or prove innocence because of the chaos in their evidence storage facilities. At the Innocence Project, we are forced to close many cases due to lost or destroyed evidence. Similarly, law enforcement efforts to solve old or “cold” cases are also prevented.
Some jurisdictions have addressed this issue head-on and undertaken efforts to overhaul and re-inventory all of their existing biological evidence so that it may be easily accessible when requested. The nation’s gold-standard evidence room is located in Charlotte, North Carolina, and overseen by Major Kevin Wittman, who described today how evidence custodians in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department bar-coded every piece of biological evidence in the department’s possession, solving more than a dozen cold cases and clearing a path for DNA testing of crime scene evidence connected to innocence claims.
Finally, Wisconsin Innocence Project Co-Director Keith Findley gave an in-depth presentation about the value of establishing a statewide innocence commission. He detailed the efforts undertaken by two such commissions in Wisconsin: the Wisconsin Assembly Judiciary Committee Task Force and the
Wisconsin Criminal Justice Study Commission
, both of which have helped enact reforms on eyewitness identification and the electronic recording of interrogations. Such non-partisan commissions, with broad representation from across the criminal justice spectrum, have proven beneficial in a number of states, from California to North Carolina.
Today’s conference was a big step for criminal justice reform in Kentucky, and other states would be well-served by replicating this approach. It is wonderful to observe first-hand the willingness and openness of key players from across Kentucky to examine where the state's criminal justice system may be falling short. When problems of shared concern are identified and discussed in an open forum, thoughtful remedies that will strengthen the quality of justice are just around the corner.