With Innocents Jailed, Bills Aim To Reduce Errors In Police Line Ups

Jan 16, 2014

Four years ago, lawmakers worked to help wrongfully convicted inmates obtain the DNA evidence needed to win their release. This year, the Legislature will try to prevent innocent suspects from going to jail in the first place. 

Dennis Maher had to spend 19 years in prison before the arrival of DNA evidence  proved he wasn’t guilty of the rape charge that landed him there. Maher can trace the roots of his wrongful conviction to a photo line-up in which the victim misidentified him as the perpetrator of the crime.

Maher was a resident of Lowell, Mass., and enlisted in the U.S. Army when charges came down.  

“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,” Maher said Thursday. “And then Nancy Taylor says, 'well you have a reaction when you looked at this one,' which was my photo. And the victim said: 'well it had to be him then.'”

More than 300 people have been exonerated of murder and other serious crimes in the U.S. And in three-quarters of those cases, misidentification of the perpetrator by victims or witnesses played a critical role in the wrongful convictions.

Maher, still a Massachusetts resident, visited Vermont Thursday to tell his story to Vermont lawmakers as they consider legislation that would bring more scientific rigor to in-person and photo line ups.

Experts say it’s especially important that the officer administering the line up not know the actual identity of the suspect, as was the case in Maher’s situation, lest they subconsciously lead the victim or witness to a false ID. The bill would also require that at least five people appear in photo line ups, and that those people bear similar physical characteristics to the actual suspect.

Jennifer Thompson is a North Carolina rape victim whose misidentification in 1984 sent an innocent man to prison for more than a decade. She said even the best intentioned police and victims are prone to life-changing mistakes.

“My eyewitness ID actually happened without malice, without intent, without any of those things, just because of a human frailty,” Thompson told lawmakers by phone.

Rebecca Brown is the director of state policy reform for the Innocence Project, a national organization that led the push for the DNA exoneration law passed in Vermont in 2009. Brown told lawmakers that the damage of false imprisonment extends well beyond the person confined to jail cell.

“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.”

The Legislature is also considering a bill that would require police agencies to record confessions.

Commissioner of Public Safety Keith Flynn said he hasn’t read the bills yet. But he said the Vermont State Police already follows many of the requirements contained in the bills. And he said he’s eager to work with the Legislature to create uniform standards.

Sen. Dick Sears, a Bennington County Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he expects to run into some pushback from smaller law enforcement departments. But Sears said he’s convinced that the reforms won’t cost very much money, and would be as big a benefit to police as it is to innocent suspects.