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Reform of identifications will curb wrongful convictions

Over the last 11 years, 13 men have been exonerated in Florida due to postconviction DNA testing. Of them, 10 were wrongfully convicted due in whole or part to mistaken identification, including Derrick Williams, who was exonerated this month of a Manatee County rape he did not commit.

This problem is nothing new. In fact, the wrongful convictions of these 10 misidentified men span the last four decades, with the latest coming just five years ago in 2006. Even with the advancements in science, like DNA testing, such technology is not only expensive but employed in less than 10 percent of cases. Yet eyewitness identifications, despite their known problems, remain the bedrock of criminal investigations and prosecutions.

The experience of these wrongful convictions is precisely why Senate President Mike Haridopolos took the lead in providing the funding last year for the Florida Innocence Commission. The prevalence of misidentifications as the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions led the commission to begin its work last year by tackling eyewitness misidentification.

The commission spent six months on this vital issue, hearing from multiple experts and giving law enforcement practitioners and prosecutors wide latitude to present their views to the commission and develop their own proposal to fix the problem. After the commission heard all the evidence, it voted in favor of Sen. Joe Negron's proposal to require all law enforcement agencies in Florida to adopt well-accepted best practices to strengthen identifications and reduce misidentifications.

After pushback from law enforcement, Negron, R-Palm City, modified his proposal to meet their concerns. His proposal left two simple but critically important requirements — the blind, or independent, administration of lineups (the most critical), and instructions to the eyewitness. These requirements were supported by the academic experts brought before the commission, including law enforcement's chosen expert.

Once SB 1206 and its companion, HB 821, were offered in the Legislature, law enforcement raised cost concerns, arguing that it would hamper small agencies that may not have enough staff to use an independent administrator for every lineup. These bills were amended to provide cost-neutral alternatives to blind administration that have been developed to still remove opportunities for suggestiveness in the administration of lineups.

But meeting all of law enforcement's legitimate concerns was not enough. Just last week, powerful law enforcement groups prevailed on lawmakers in the House of Representatives to remove the requirement that all lineups in Florida be administered uniformly by a blind administrator or through an approved method to reduce suggestiveness. Should this version become law, it would create an uneven hodgepodge of practices throughout Florida and would undermine six months' worth of work by the Innocence Commission that concluded that a statewide mandate was the only way to prevent misidentifications of innocent people that lead to the horror of wrongful conviction and incarceration.

While this revised bill now represents the House's version of reform, Negron's cost-neutral bill that comports with the most critical best practices is thankfully still alive in the Senate and still has the opportunity to become law.

Law enforcement agencies, big and small, around the nation and in Florida have already adopted the methods outlined in the Negron bill. In fact, Ohio, North Carolina and New Jersey have implemented a statewide mandate of these same methods for performing identifications. Not a single agency that is using these best practices has identified difficulties with their implementation and, most importantly, not even one of these agencies has gone back to using conventional methods that we know cause misidentifications.

The Negron bill must become law. Passage of anything short of SB 1206 will undermine all of the efforts made to date and fail to seize the momentum created by Florida's Innocence Commission. But the real impact of failure will be on innocent individuals and the overall safety of Floridians.

When someone is misidentified, wrongfully convicted and wrongfully incarcerated, the real perpetrator is left on the streets to prey on society — never to be caught in most cases. The innocent individual is stripped of his freedom and loses the chance to be a productive member of a free society. And if that innocent person is blessed enough to be exonerated, the state of Florida may pay out millions of dollars in restitution for having wrongfully incarcerated this person.

All of this can be prevented by mandating modest, simple but critical reforms in the Negron bill — SB 1206. Florida cannot wait any longer for justice.

Seth Miller is the executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida.

Reform of identifications will curb wrongful convictions 04/23/11 [Last modified: Friday, April 22, 2011 6:59pm]

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