Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

Identifying the Wrong Man

Posted by Maggie on December 13, 2007

I mentioned earlier this week the exoneration of John White after he was shown by DNA evidence to be innocent of a 1979 rape. As previously reported, there was a “cold hit” from the DNA to another person in Georgia’s database. Turns out it was to James Parham, who was in the same lineup that White was picked out of nearly 30 years ago. It’s an amazing coincidence, since White was the suspect police had their eye on and Parham was used only because he was already in the local jail. Worse, the description the victim gave didn’t even fit Parham. (She wasn’t wearing her glasses. Cliche, but true.)

This information surfaces on the final day of hearings for the House Study Committee on Eyewitness Identification Procedures. Hearings started back in September and they’ve heard from those falsely identified as well as those who made false identifications. White himself was brought to today’s hearing. Law enforcement has argued against regulations. I am very very hopeful that we can take some strong steps forward. Very few states have ventured into this territory and there’s a lot of information out there that needs to be disseminated to the public and the legislatures. A proposed draft of legislation was put out at today’s hearing.

Benefield released drafts of proposed legislation that says, beginning July 1, 2011, all photographic or physical lineups must be conducted by officers who have successfully completed eyewitness ID training. The legislation also says if a law enforcement agency does not have written protocols on eyewitness ID by Jan. 1, 2009, the agency can be denied state funding or state-administered federal funding.

As previously reported, most Georgia law enforcement agencies have little to no eyewitness procedures. And in my experience, they’ll do a “show-up” to a “line-up” any day of the week. (A show up is where police pick up the suspect, drive them to the victim, and keep the suspect in the back of the car, handcuffed, while they ask the victim if this is the guy. Very unbiased, eh?) Maybe this could change that. But even these changes wouldn’t have helped John White. One can only hope that defense attorneys can start getting more experts allowed in cases to testify to the fallacies of eyewitness ID’s.

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