Vermont Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, is co-sponsoring two bills this session that would require all law enforcement agencies to adopt a model policy on how to administer live or photo-lineups and would call for the recording of interrogations in homicide and sexual assault cases.
The most common element in all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence has been eyewitness misidentification. Misleading lineup methods have been used for decades without serious scrutiny, and Vermont has the opportunity to implement best practices that would prevent eyewitness misidentification.
The electronic recording of interrogations, from the reading of Miranda rights onward, is the single best reform available to stem the tide of false confessions which contributed to approximately 25% of the wrongful convictions overturned with DNA evidence. The Brattleboro Reformer reported that even though most of the larger police departments already have recording equipment, the recording bill would specifically provide ways of helping underfunded departments.
“What these reforms would really accomplish, especially from the eyewitness front, is ensuring that all law enforcement agencies are operating on the same page and carrying out procedures consistently,” said Rebecca Brown, nationwide director of state policy reform for The Innocence Project.
According to Rick Gauthier, executive director of the Vermont Criminal Justice Training Council, officials at the local level are already receiving training on how to interact with witnesses without asking leading questions and how to properly handle cases of eyewitness identification and misidentification. Gauthier supports the bills and said his council has the same goals as Brown, who helped draft the legislation.
“The worst thing we can do is put someone who’s not guilty behind bars,” said Sears. “For the person who’s been convicted and sentenced to incarceration that’s a horrible thing for them to have to go through when they’re not guilty, and also, that means that the person who is guilty is still out there.”