Rhode Island Legislators Propose Improved Eyewitness Identification Methods

May 19th, 2010

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.