Choosing the Wrong Perpetrator: Eyewitness Identification and the Innocence Project

In May 2017 two bills passed both the Florida House and the Senate aiming to improve eyewitness identification. The bills were hailed by Seth Miller, the executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, an organization that seeks to help innocent prisoners in Florida. The organization independently investigates cases, secures and tests biological evidence, and advocates for criminal justice reform, among other services. It is a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization founded in 2003. Since its creation, the organization has been pushing for eyewitness reform.

CS/SB 312, the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act, and its companion HB 643 both passed the House and Senate with only one vote of “no”. Sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala and Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, respectively, the bills were well-received by many. Miller of the Innocence Project has stated that he is thrilled by the passing of the bills, which were six years in the making.

A 2012 report by the Florida Innocence Commission found that 25 percent of wrongful imprisonments were the result of false confessions. Two bills that would require recording the interrogations of suspects did not make it to a floor vote. Miller strongly advocated for these bills, and promises to work towards passing new legislation that will reduce false confessions via mandatory recording.

One Florida case makes the need for this kind of legislation startlingly clear. In 1983, 15- year old Anthony Caravella was arrested for the rape and murder of a 58-year old woman. He spent 26 years in prison until he was freed by DNA testing. In the days leading up to his confession he provided inconsistent statements that did not match the physical evidence and was repeatedly subject to abusive interrogations. None of the interrogations were recorded, only his confession. The boy had an IQ of 67.

The Eyewitness Reform Act will require all agencies that administer and oversee lineups to adhere to stricter, fairer regulations. The bill seeks to increase the accuracy of eyewitness identifications by providing strict instructions to administrators and eyewitnesses and regulating lineup procedures. The bill advocates for the use of automated lineup systems through computers, which will increase and ensure total neutrality. It requires a “blind administrator” to administer the lineup—someone who is a neutral party and has no affiliation with the case.

It also requires that eyewitnesses be informed that they are not required to make an identification, that the identification of innocent persons is as important as guilty ones, that the investigation will continue on if they do not identify anyone, and that the perpetrator may not even be included in the lineup. Eyewitnesses will be required to sign a statement acknowledging that they received these instructions.

Michelle Feldman, a policy advocate for the national Innocence Project, stated that out of 349 DNA exonerations across the United States, 71 percent were due to or involved eyewitness misidentification. She estimates that the true perpetrators of these crimes went on to be convicted of 100 or more violent crimes such as rape and murder. Both Feldman and Miller express optimism at the passage of these bills and their future counterparts. Criminal justice reform is in the air.

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