Gladden & Peña-Melnyk: Change Police Lineup Rules to Better Protect the Innocent

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By: Sen. Lisa A. Gladden and Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk 

During Kirk Bloodsworth’s trial for the 1985 brutal killing and sexual assault of a nine year old girl in Maryland, no fewer than five eyewitnesses claimed to have seen Bloodsworth with the victim. These misidentifications contributed to a death sentence conviction for Bloodworth, a former Marine. Fortunately, after serving eight years of his sentence, Bloodsworth’s wrongful conviction finally came to light when DNA testing excluded him as the perpetrator of this crime.

Bloodsworth’s horrific experience with wrongful conviction begs the question: how is it possible for five separate individuals to wrongly indentify the same man?

Eyewitness misidentification is surprisingly quite common. Nationwide, it is the leading contributor to wrongful convictions.  In fact, misidentifications played a role in 73 percent of the 312 wrongful conviction cases later overturned by DNA evidence. Moreover, three of the four DNA exonerations that have occurred in Maryland, including Bloodsworth, involved a misidentification.

Wrongful convictions not only send innocent individuals like Bloodsworth to jail, they also free real perpetrators to commit additional crimes. It took until 2003 for police to identify the true perpetrator of the crime that sent Bloodsworth to prison, a man named Kimberly Shay Ruffner. Of the 312 DNA exoneration cases, 153 real perpetrators have been similarly identified. Ruffner was already behind bars when he was identified, but that is unfortunately not always the case. While innocent people languished behind bars, the real perpetrators in other DNA exoneration cases went on to commit 139 additional violent crimes, including 30 homicides and 70 rapes. These crimes, moreover, are just the ones that have resulted in convictions.

We owe it to Bloodsworth, and the residents of this state, to do everything in our power to protect the innocent from wrongful convictions and ensure the true perpetrators of violent crimes are brought to justice. Fortunately, over the past 30 years, a large body of peer-reviewed research has pointed to simple, inexpensive reforms to eyewitness identification procedures that can greatly reduce the rate of identification error. In particular, research suggests lineup procedures should be conducted by an administrator who is either unaware of who the suspect is, or, when manpower is limited, employs a method that prevents him from seeing which lineup member is being viewed by the eyewitness.   This prevents the administrator from even unintentionally influencing the eyewitness.  Research has shown that conducting lineups in this way greatly reduces the potential of misidentifications. By sponsoring Senate Bill 860 and its companion bill, House Bill 1200, we hope to see commonsense reforms such as these become law in our state.

These reforms will benefit both the innocent and law enforcement officials in our state. Reforms to lineup procedures can help reduce the valuable time and resources wasted pursuing an innocent individual following a misidentification. Moreover, public safety is ensured when the focus of police inquiry is steered toward the actual perpetrators of crimes, rather than toward an innocent person, leaving the true perpetrators of crimes free to commit additional crimes.

Fortunately, our state has already made progress toward ensuring these important reforms are implemented. In 2007, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that required all law enforcement agencies in the state to craft a written policy that conforms to the Department of Justice guidelines on eyewitness procedures, including the blind administration of lineups. Since that time, police chiefs in many part of the state have begun working toward implementing eyewitness reforms. Most recently, Baltimore City Police Chief, Anthony Batts, announced his department would implement these reforms.  Prince George’s County Police Department soon followed.  Their Inspector General, Carlos F. Acosta, was recently quoted as saying, “You don’t want to catch the wrong guy because now you’re messing with someone who is innocent and the bad guy is still out there.” However, seven years after the passage of the 2007 law, a survey of law enforcement agencies shows that Baltimore and Prince George’s County police departments are still in the minority in our state. Only 30 percent of Maryland’s 156 police agencies and 24 sheriffs’ offices have adopted the blind administration of lineups as a best practice. In order to guarantee that residents of Maryland are uniformly protected in this state, we need to pass eyewitness identification reforms through the Maryland General Assembly this session.

Tuesday March 4th, the Senate Public Safety Committee will hold a hearing on Senate Bill 860.  The House Committee will hear its version, House Bill 1200, two days later, on Thursday March 6th. We strongly urge our colleagues to do right by the innocent, and bring true perpetrators to justice, by joining us in support of these bills.

Senator Lisa A. Gladden (D) represents Maryland State Senate District 41. Her email address is . Delegate Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D) represents Maryland House District 21. Her email address is .

 

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