Law enforcement officials from across Rhode Island are meeting today to discuss proposed legislation that would reform eyewitness identification procedures statewide.
Eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned through DNA testing, but all but three Rhode Island police departments lack written policies that include U.S. Department of Justice best practices.
An article in today’s Providence Journal examines the proposed legislation and the role of a champion for state reform: Brown University student Reade Seligmann. In 2006, Seligmann learned the consequences of misidentification firsthand in one of the most highly publicized criminal investigations cases in recent years. He and two Duke lacrosse teammates were wrongfully accused of raping an exotic dancer who picked them out of a suggestive photo array made up of only Duke lacrosse players. Katie Mulvaney writes in the Providence Journal:
Seligmann’s experience of being indicted and then cleared of the allegations proved motivating. He will graduate from Brown University later this month with a joint degree in history and public policy. He plans to attend law school, where he will focus on criminal defense and work to reduce the number of innocent people behind bars. “It opened my eyes to things I never knew existed,” Seligmann said in a recent interview, adding, “When you have your life taken out of your hands, it’s terrifying.”
The proposed eyewitness reform legislation has not passed for the previous five years and is being held in Rhode Island’s legislature for further study. The Innocence Project is among several groups advocating for Rhode Island to follow recommended practices to avoid misidentifications.
Rhode Island’s current guidelines dictate that live and photo lineups, called six-packs, include a group of six individuals or photos. State police now have the ability to draw photos from not only the thousands of images in its database but from local police departments as well, said Lt. Michael J. Winquist. State police are in the process of revising policies to include some of the DOJ’s best practices.
The legislation would also create a task force of law enforcement members who would determine if lineups need to be conducted by “blind administrators” – officers who know don’t know which participant is the suspect. The task force would also determine if individuals or images in a lineup should be presented one at a time instead of as a group.
State police Col. Brendan P. Doherty supports the creation of the task force, Capt. David Neill said. “I think anything we can do to increase the accuracy of any photo or live lineup is beneficial to law enforcement.”
Deputy Attorney General Gerald J. Coyne opposed the proposed legislation at a symposium about eyewitness identification practices, which Seligmann organized at Brown last month. Coyne said he didn’t support the bill as a fix because it would be difficult to change as so-called best practices evolve. Checks and balances are already in place, he said, emphasizing that defense lawyers should have the legal skills to know when to challenge identification procedures.
Learn about eyewitness misidentification and eyewitness identification reforms
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