(AP) Virginia has made great strides in the past year in improving police lineup procedures, but a state crime panel agreed Tuesday that more should be done to guard against faulty eyewitness identifications.
Police lineups are under scrutiny because 13 of the 16 people wrongly convicted in Virginia and later exonerated by DNA evidence originally were misidentified by eyewitnesses. One was Thomas Haynesworth, who spent 27 years in prison for sexual assaults he didn’t commit before being freed in 2011. He said he is happy to see officials recognize the problem and are taking action.
“It’s a big issue,” he said in a telephone interview. “Many people have been falsely identified, not only by victims but by police.”
The Virginia State Crime Commission endorsed legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to adopt a model policy recommended by the state Department of Criminal Justice Services in 2011. Only 6 percent of the agencies responding to a survey last year by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett had voluntarily adopted the “best practices” model. A new study by the Crime Commission staff found that 46 percent of the 135 agencies now have adopted the model policy, or one nearly identical to it.
A key component of a model policy is the use of “blind” lineups in which the officer in charge doesn’t know which person in the live or photo lineup is the actual suspect — a tougher procedure to follow for small departments. The commission’s study found that only 10 percent of Virginia’s agencies require this method, while 69 percent make it an option. A little more than one-fifth do not use the blind administrator procedure.
Nearly two-thirds of the agencies allow the “folder shuffle” method, in which lineup photos are placed into folders and handed to the witness. The administrator doesn’t know which folder contains the suspect’s photo and therefore is not prone to unwittingly send any signals as the witness looks through the lineup. This method, which is considered a better alternative for small agencies, also is allowed by Virginia’s model policy.
The use of blind lineups is one of the recommendations of a study released earlier this month by the National Academy of Sciences. It found that people’s memories are “highly malleable and continuously evolving,” which underscores the need for procedures that minimize the risk of misidentification.
The increase in the number of agencies using the model policy “is a great sign for Virginia,” said Shawn Armbrust, executive director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, which fought for Haynesworth’s exoneration. “We’ve been advocating for best practices across the board.”
But Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, cautioned against a “one-size-fits-all” approach. She said Virginia has at least 13 one-person police departments, plus an additional 50 to 60 departments with five or fewer employees, and suggested that the model policy might not work for such small agencies. She cited at least one small police department that doesn’t even conduct lineups, but turns that duty over to a larger neighboring department.
Schrad said that if the model policy is made mandatory, the Department of Criminal Justice Services will have to amend it to better accommodate small agencies.
The commission did, however, agree to exempt a handful of sheriffs’ departments that do not conduct criminal investigations. Those departments only serve papers and provide courtroom security.
Armbrust said the scientific report lends credence to what lineup reform advocates have been saying all along.
“It helps lend a lot of credibility to the arguments when you have science behind it,” she said.
The General Assembly will take up the Crime Commission proposal at the session that begins in January.
— LARRY O’DELL, Associated Press