Shawnee Dispatch

Kansas weighing rules for handling eyewitnesses to crimes

March 28, 2016

TOPEKA — Topeka resident Joe Jones was walking early one August morning in 1985 when he was stopped by a police officer because he fit the description of someone who assaulted a woman the day before. Jones was arrested that day and convicted the next year. He spent more than six years in prison before being exonerated through DNA evidence.

"At that trial I was convicted mainly on eyewitness identification," said Jones, 54.

Eyewitness misidentification has accounted for 71 percent of the 337 convictions overturned by DNA evidence since 1989, said Michelle Feldman, the state policy advocate of the Innocence Project, a national organization that works to free inmates wrongly imprisoned. What's more, the actual perpetrators of the crimes went on to commit and be convicted of 100 additional violent crimes, she said.

Kansas legislators are considering a bill that seeks to limit wrongful convictions by requiring law enforcement agencies to create written policies for dealing with eyewitnesses. It has support from law enforcement groups, and it has been approved by the full Senate and the House Judiciary Committee. Republican Sen. Jeff King, of Independence, said House and Senate members might include the measure in a larger package of judiciary legislation.

The bill, sponsored by Democratic Sen. David Haley, of Kansas City, would require law enforcement agencies to take steps recommended by the National Academy of Science.

First, suspect lineups would have to be conducted by an officer who doesn't know the suspect's identity. Officers using photographs instead of a physical lineup could put pictures in folders and shuffle them to make sure they don't know whose photo the witness is viewing.

"Just like any other scientific experiment, it takes any suggestiveness or unintended cues out of the process," Feldman said.

Another procedure would require a written statement from the witness about their level of certainty that the person identified from the lineup was the perpetrator. All of the people selected for the lineup would have to look similar to the perpetrator that the witness described so one person doesn't stand out. And witnesses would be told that they're not required to identify someone from the lineup.

Fourteen states have similar eyewitness identification policies, Feldman said.

Some law enforcement groups are on board, saying they appreciate the flexibility it allows agencies to add to the policy as needed.

Ed Klumpp, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, said most law enforcement agencies already use best practices in lineups, although there are no uniform procedures.

Haley has introduced similar bills in previous sessions but they didn't pass. He's pushing again this year because he thinks it's important to ensure accuracy.

"I don't think that anyone really wants the wrong person to serve time," Haley said.

Originally published at: