Texas leads the nation in wrongful convictions. That’s why it’s interesting to find some of the state’s law enforcement leaders no longer mouthing the tired old tropes about why they can’t change eyewitness identification procedures. The state mandated some changes with a new law, which takes effect on September 1. So now some members of law enforcement in Texas say: it’s important, and we’re going to get it done.
A bit of background: last fall, two state senators introduced a bill requiring some basic science-based reforms in eyewitness identification procedures. The bill passed, and on September 1, police agencies conducting eyewitness identifications must do so using a sequential process (showing members of a lineup or photos of a lineup to a witness one person at at time). Police also must hold “blind” lineups, by having the lineup or pictures shown to the witness only by someone not involved in the investigation. And each agency must adopt a written policy on eyewitness identification. The bill requires other reforms, too.
When changes like this are proposed, there is usually wide resistance by police and prosecutorial leadership: these things will cost too much, be too logistically complex, and will be far too difficult for small agencies.
This is what made an article I saw in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times so striking. The piece concerned training for law enforcement on the new eyewitness procedures, conducted by Nueces County District Attorney Mark Skurka. According to the article, Mr. Skurka told about eighty officers that “the changes came about because of an increase in exonerations due to DNA evidence. Law enforcement and prosecutors previously relied mainly on eyewitnesses, he said, but that practice caused many wrongful convictions.” This made the reforms necessary, Skurka said, and “whether you have a two-man agency in Driscoll or a 150-man agency in Corpus Christi,” every agency will have to get on board.
Perhaps there’s nothing more to this than the fact that the legislature required the changes. I have no idea whether D.A. Skurka believed or articulated these ideas about wrongful convictions and eyewitness testimony before the legislation or not. But maybe that isn’t the point. Once there is a requirement in the law, he has to move his people toward science-based best practices. So, for advocates of change, making allies in the state legislatures to move these practices into law means everything. (See Chapters six and seven of Failed Evidence, available next month.)