Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Rhode Island Legislators Propose Improved Eyewitness Identification Methods

A recent article published in the The Providence Journal discusses the importance of legislation that would improve eyewitness identification methods in the state of Rhode Island. In the wake of a 2007-2008 survey conducted by the Rhode Island Office of the Public Defender, which reported that there have been at least seven cases of wrongful convictions as a result of faulty eyewitness IDs, Rhode Island legislators have proposed a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to follow more stringent eyewitness identification policies. Out of the 42 law enforcement agencies that responded to the survey, only 3 have written policies outlining proper eyewitness ID procedures. The legislation proposes a statewide standard for proper procedures. One of the sponsors of the bill, Sen. Harold M. Metts, (D-Providence) believes law enforcement agencies should implement best practices. “Anything to enhance the process, that’s what we need to do,” Metts said.

Both law enforcement agencies and attorneys understand the persuasive force of eyewitness testimony in the courtroom. Many social scientists, however, are skeptical of such evidence. According to the article, “Social scientists say stress, gaps in memory or the desire to make an identification at all costs can lead to mistakes.” With these factors in mind, the proposed legislation would mandate certain practices, such as live and photo lineups that include “fillers” who fit the suspects general characteristics.

The article also examines the experience of Brown University student Reade Seligmann. In 2006, Seligmann learned the consequences of misidentification firsthand when he and two Duke lacrosse teammates were wrongfully accused of raping an exotic dancer who picked them out of a faulty photo array made up of only Duke lacrosse players. According to data compiled by the New York based Innocence Project, 79 percent of the 252 people exonerated through DNA evidence were convicted on the basis of faulty eyewitness identification. “When you have your life taken out of your hands, it’s terrifying,” said Seligmann.

Monday, May 17, 2010

DNA Access Law Passed in Alaska

Today, the Alaska State Legislature passed legislation granting access to post conviction DNA testing. Additionally, the law will require the preservation of evidence following a conviction. This milestone legislation is a significant step forward for inmates seeking post conviction relief through DNA testing, many of whom did not have the technology available at the time of their trial. The success in Alaska leaves only two states without such laws, Massachusetts and Oklahoma. A link to the legislation is provided below.

Monday, May 3, 2010

NEIP Exoneree to speak before the Boston Rotary Club

NEIP exoneree Dennis Maher will be speaking before the Boston Rotary Club to discuss the many issues involved with wrongful convictions as well as his own 1984 wrongful conviction. Additionally, Mr. Maher is expected to address the problem of Massachusetts’ DNA access laws and the importance of the legislation. The event will be taking place at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel on Wednesday, May 12th from 6 to 7:30.

Dennis Maher was convicted in two separate trials of attacks on three women. In March 1984, he was found guilty of the rape and assault of two women in Lowell on consecutive evenings in November 1983. In April 1984, he was convicted of the August 1983 rape of another woman in Ayer. After the second trial, Maher was sentenced to life in prison. Under Massachusetts law in effect at the time of his convictions, he was also civilly committed to Bridgewater Treatment Center. Maher, a U.S. Army sergeant at the time of his arrest, had always asserted his innocence and wrote to The Innocence Project for help. The Innocence Project tried repeatedly to gain access to the biological evidence collected from the victims, but was told that the evidence couldn’t be found. In 2001, NEIP located long-misplaced evidence from the Lowell trial in the basement of the Middlesex Superior Court. In December 2002, DNA test results excluded Dennis Maher as the source of semen on the evidence. After Maher was excluded as the source of semen in the Lowell case, in February 2003, the Middlesex District Attorney's Office located at the Ayer Police station a slide prepared from the rape kit of the Ayer rape victim. This slide was submitted for DNA testing and Maher was again excluded as the source of semen. Dennis Maher was exonerated in April 2003 after 19 years in prison. He was represented by NEIP attorneys and by the Innocence Project in New York.