Virginia Sheriff Lobbies Local Law Enforcement to Form Justice Commission
J.E. “Chip” Harding, a sheriff for Albemarle County, Virginia, is rallying the support of local law enforcement leaders around his proposal to create a government-funded commission that would establish new policies and best practices meant to prevent future wrongful conviction cases across the state. The
reported on Saturday that Sheriff Harding, a 40-year law enforcement veteran, has personally written to and called 123 sheriffs and 247 police chiefs from across Virginia to inform them about the need for more mandatory uniform investigation practices and the win-win benefits to building a justice commission.
According to the Innocence Project, Virginia was responsible for 16 of the 314 wrongful conviction cases that were eventually cleared through post-conviction DNA testing in the United States. Of those 16 cases, the
writes that all but three were based on misidentification of suspects by witnesses and victims made during criminal investigations and police line ups. Sheriff Harding believes that a justice commission can address these types of mistakes by “studying potential improvements in practices and procedures, and providing a forum for consideration of best practices by prosecutors, investigators, defense lawyers, scientists and academics.” He told the
, “procedures and policies that might be studied could include the way suspect photo and in-person lineups are presented to victims and witnesses.”
Harding’s efforts appear to be paying off. He is winning support from a wide range of law enforcement stakeholders. Roanoke’s Chief of Police Chris Perkins said to the
, “I’m pleased that Sheriff Harding has brought forth this idea. If you’re going to have a profession like law enforcement, you’ve got to consistently look at the things we do and how we do them.” Richmond Chief of Police Ray Tarasovic also voiced his approval of what a justice commission could achieve. While he wants to learn more details about Harding’s proposal, he said, “Our overriding focus is that justice is served in every case, and that those we charge with crimes are, in fact, responsible.” And Charlottesville Chief of Police and President of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police Tim Longo, said that he feels positive that Harding’s proposed commission could help develop needed best practices.
Harding explained to the
that until recently, he believed that because of this long tenure on the job, he was a “cutting edge” investigator who was doing everything right when it came to working criminal cases. But, after learning more about the causes of wrongful convictions, he says, “I now know I was wrong.”
While Virginia has adopted some best practices to prevent against eyewitness misidentification, the state has made implementation of the practices voluntary. According to the
, a survey conducted in 2013 by the University of Virginia School of Law revealed that only a small number of police departments in Virginia had adopted a Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services policy for photo and in-person lineups. University of Virginia School of Law Professor Brandon Garrett said, “A justice commission like this could really make a difference” in the implementation of existing best practices.
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