News 05.13.15

Eyewitness ID reform becomes law in Georgia



Best practices scientifically proven to protect against misidentification, leading contributor to wrongful conviction


Contact:   Nick Moroni, 

nmoroni@innocenceproject.org


Rebecca Brown, 

rbrown@innocenceproject.org

(Atlanta, Ga. – May 13, 2015) – Gov. Nathan Deal recently signed into law legislation (

SB 94

)  that will require law enforcement agencies to implement eyewitness identification best practices designed to protect against misidentification. The bipartisan measure, which contains reforms that have been scientifically proven to reduce the chance of misidentification, is the result of the leadership of and collaboration between members of the legislature and criminal justice advocates and stakeholders. 

“We, along with our partners, have been working for nine years to bring eyewitness identification reform to Georgia. Those efforts, which involved hosting training sessions for police, surveying departments to gauge which use best practices, and working with law enforcement to attempt a voluntary approach to eyewitness identification reform, resulted in great progress. However, it became clear that the only way to ensure uniform adoption was through legislation,” said Aimee Maxwell, Executive Director of the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP). “This statute ensures equal justice for all Georgians. I want to thank Gov. Deal, Majority Leader Bill Cowsert (Athens), Sen. Charlie Bethel (Dalton), Rep. Alex Atwood (St. Simons Island) and members of the legislature, Frank V. Rotondo, of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP), LaGrange Police Chief Lou Dekmar, who enabled statewide trainings in best practices for law enforcement, and members of law enforcement for their critical support in enacting this law.” 

“With the enactment of this law, Georgia assumes a leadership role among 13 other states that have implemented eyewitness identification reforms which will protect against misidentification, a phenomenon that played a role in every one of the state’s eight wrongful convictions proven by DNA evidence. Thank you to all of the stakeholders who came together in the interest of justice and public safety to help achieve this important improvement to the law,” said Rebecca Brown, Policy Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law.

“This law gives police the tools they need to be laser-focused on apprehending the truly guilty. Eyewitness identification is a powerful and valuable investigative method, but we need to be sure that we are using the most scientifically advanced practices, which this law will ensure,” said Frank V. Rotondo, Executive Director of GACP. 

SB 94 would mandate eyewitness identification policies that are recommended the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the GACP, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the American Bar Association, and other legal, law enforcement, prosecutorial and criminal justice organizations.  According to the new statute, Georgia law enforcement agencies must have written eyewitness identification policies by July 2016 that contain the following practices:

  • Blind Administration of photo, live lineups – The officer administering a live or photo lineup must be unaware of the suspect’s identity, or unable to see which photo an eyewitness is viewing through a practice known as the folder shuffle. This prevents any unintentional cues, which could influence an erroneous identification. 
  • Fillers – There should be at least four fillers in a live lineup, and at least five in a photo lineup. Additionally, no filler should stand out; the fillers should all resemble the witness’ original description of the suspect.
  • Instructions – The eyewitness should be instructed that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether a selection is made; this way the eyewitness does not feel pressured to make a selection.
  • Confidence statement – If the eyewitness does make a selection, the officer shall write down a verbatim confidence statement immediately after the identification is made. This will help investigators and juries determine the level of the eyewitness’ confidence. 

     

Georgia becomes the 14th state to embrace eyewitness identification reform. Georgia’s new law is the result of collaboration between Senate Majority Leader Bill Cowsert and members of both houses of the legislature, GACP, GIP, the Innocence Project, and other stakeholders. The law will protect against misidentification, which is the leading contributor to wrongful conviction proven by DNA evidence, playing a role in 72 percent of the nation’s 329 such cases. In Georgia, all of the state’s 8 DNA exonerations stemmed from wrongful conviction involving misidentification.   

The enactment of SB 94 into law caps nine years of GIP-led efforts to ensure that all police departments in Georgia are using eyewitness identification best practices. Starting in the 2006-07 legislative session, GIP supported a bill that would mandate eyewitness identification best practices. As a compromise, the legislature passed a resolution which, in effect, formed a legislative study committee to explore how best to implement scientifically supported practices.  The study committee’s work resulted in the Georgia Peace Officer Standard and Training Council (POST) and the GACP in 2008 creating model policies, each of which contained some of the practices that are now part of this new law.  In 2007, GIP sent a survey to all Georgia law enforcement agencies to gauge the prevalence of written eyewitness identification policies, but many departments did not reply. In 2013, GIP submitted an Open Records Act request to follow up on the 2007 survey, and 80 percent of the state’s law enforcement agencies responded. Of those that responded, GIP found that: 57 percent of the agencies had no written policy, 76 percent did not use blind administration, 63 percent did not obtain confidence statements, and 67 percent did not perform witness instructions. This made it abundantly clear that legislation was necessary to ensure uniform statewide adoption of eyewitness identification best practices.  The law would not have been possible without the support of Frank V. Rotondo, of GACP, Sens. Cowsert and Bethel, Rep. Atwood, and other stakeholders. 

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