News 01.17.14

Vermont Considers Two Wrongful Conviction Reforms

Four years after Vermont passed legislation to allow post-conviction DNA testing, state legislators are now considering two bills — SB 184 and SB 297 — to improve eyewitness identification procedures and to prevent false confessions.

 


Dennis Maher

, who was wrongly convicted of rape in 1984 based on eyewitness misidentification, testified before the Vermont Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday in favor of the proposed reforms. Maher spent 19 years in prison before he was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2003.

 

Maher told Vermont Public Radio on Thursday, “The female officer, Nancy Taylor, had 10 photos, and she brought them and showed them to the victim. Now the victim said, ‘None of these match.’ And then Nancy Taylor [said], ‘Well, you [had] a reaction when you looked at this one,’ which was my photo. And the victim said: ‘Well, it had to be him then.’ ”

 

Mistaken eyewitness identifications contributed to approximately 73 percent of the 312 wrongful convictions in the United States that were overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. SB 184 would implement “blind” lineup procedures, a best practice in which the administrator is unaware of who the suspect is. Blind lineups help to prevent influencing eyewitnesses.

 

Rebecca Brown, the Innocence Project’s director of State Policy Reform, told Vermont Public Radio that a wrongful conviction doesn’t just affect the person sitting behind bars, and that passing both bills will strengthen the justice system.

 

“Misidentifications harm everyone. It’s not just the innocent and their loved ones who are subjected to the horror of wrongful conviction,” Brown said. “For the police, misidentifications impede or destroy investigations by focusing on the wrong person.”

 

SB 297 would require the electronic recording of interrogations for violent crimes in order to protect against false confessions. In approximately 25 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned through DNA evidence, defendants made false confessions or admissions to law enforcement officials. 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.

 

Both bills are sponsored by Senator Richard Sears (D-Bennington), the Senate Judiciary Chair, as well as Senators Timothy Ashe (D-Chittenden) and Joseph Benning (R-Caledonia).

 

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Learn more about eyewitness identification

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Learn more about false confessions and mandatory recording of interrogations

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