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Task Force Turns Over Unanimous Recommendations

by Hugh McQuaid | Mar 16, 2012 4:31pm
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Posted to: Courts, Legal

Hugh McQuaid Photo

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane

After hearing from experts and examining scientific studies for almost a year, a task force whose members previously disagreed on making changes to how criminal lineups are conducted, made unanimous recommendations to the Judiciary Committee Friday.

The Eye Witness Identification Task Force was created last year through legislation to study the issue. The goal of the modifications are to increase the reliability of eye witnesses when they try to identify offenders from a lineup.

Last year, lawmakers could not agree on some of the proposed changes and opted instead to commission the group to study the issue and make recommendations to the committee this year. They did that Friday at a public hearing on a new bill.

The task force’s recommendations include two major proposals. One will require that during a lineup, witnesses see potential offenders, or their pictures, one at a time instead of all at once. That reduces a witness’s ability to pick the face that looks most like the offender, rather than the actual offender.

They will also recommend that the officer conducting the lineup either not know which person is believed to be the perpetrator, or not know which picture the witness is looking at. That keeps the police from indicating to the witness, either consciously or unconsciously, which person they believe is guilty.

One of the group’s members, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane, testified in opposition to the measure at a hearing two years ago, arguing it was an example of the legislature overreaching into law enforcement affairs.

“[The bill] represents unwarranted intrusion into law enforcement practices that should be determined by the law enforcement profession under the ever-present and pain-painstakingly thorough review by the courts,” Kane said.

After serving on the task force, which included police officers, Kane said the Division of Criminal Justice was behind the bill.

“I think it’s clear how active and involved and eager to be involved the police departments of the state of Connecticut were with this. They want to get things right,” he said.

However, Kane did not want his support to be construed as an indication that witnesses misidentifying suspects was a wide-spread problem in the criminal justice system. Cases rarely rely strictly on eye witness testimony, he said.

“One person wrongly convicted is one person too many,” he said. “This is huge step in the right direction.”

However, a case came to light this week involving a Hartford man who was likely wrongly imprisoned on rape charges.

Earlier in the day the task force heard from Jennifer Thompson, co-author of the book “Picking Cotton.” In 1984, Thompson was raped in North Carolina and went on to misidentify a man named Ronald Cotton in a criminal lineup.

“I spent 20 minutes during my rape, trying to pay attention to the details of this person’s face,” she said.

When she went to the police department she said she was able to give a solid description, which led to a composite sketch of her attacker. Three days later she picked Cotton out of a photo lineup. Cotton was convicted of rape and sentenced to life in prison, she said.

Eleven years later DNA evidence exonerated Cotton and implicated another man. Now Thompson and Cotton are friends. He helped co-write the book. These days they travel around the country, talking about the frailties of the criminal justice system and the pitfalls of human memory, she said.

Thompson said some of the changes the task force is recommending could have helped prevent her mistaken identification. For instance, the provision which calls for the lineup to be conducted “blind,” so the officer doesn’t know which photo is the suspect.

“I was given confirmation by police officers that I did a good job That’s the guy they thought it was, the guy I picked out in the photo. So it leads to what they call false certainty,” she said.

It also could have helped if she was presented with photos of potential suspects one by one, instead of being allowed to compare them against each other, she said.

“I do know that during the simultaneous lineup, I did what they call relative judgement, where you very quickly can discount X number of them and narrow it down. It’s all very subconscious and you don’t know you’re doing it,” she said.

In Thompson’s case, the man who actually committed the rape wasn’t even in the lineup. But in her mind, she was thinking that one of the photos must be the suspect, she said.

“Listen, I’m 22 years old, I’ve just been raped, I’m in a police department, they’re showing me a lineup and in the back of my mind, I’m thinking to myself, ‘It’s one of these guys. I’ve got to find him,’” she said.

The bill also includes language that requires police to inform the witness that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether they pick a suspect.

Sen. Eric Coleman, the committee’s co-chair, thanked the task force for their work and said he expects there will be broad support for the bill this session.

However, not everyone testified in favor of the bill. The Connecticut Police Chief’s Association questioned whether it was wise to codify police procedure. South Windsor Police Chief Matt Reed said the association did think the bill had identified the current best practices for criminal lineups.

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