Category Archives: Police conduct (good and bad)

National Academy of Sciences Releases Landmark Report on Memory and Eyewitness Identification, Urges Reform of Police Identification Procedures

The Innocence Project has posted a notice on its website, with a link to a press release, about the recently released report by the Nation Academy of Sciences on memory and eyewitness identification.

From the report:  “the legal standard that most courts use regarding the admissibility of eyewitness testimony was established before most of the scientific research was conducted.”

The report endorses the following procedures for police lineups:

  • Blind Administration — Research shows that the risk of misidentification is sharply reduced if the police officer administering a photo or live lineup is not aware of who the suspect is. This prevents the witness from picking up intentional or unintentional clues from the officer conducting the lineup.
  • Confidence Statements — Immediately following a lineup, the eyewitness should be asked to describe in his or her own words how confident he or she is in the identification. As the report notes, the level of confidence a witness expresses at the time of trial is not a reliable predictor of accuracy. Having the witness describe their level of confidence at the time an identification is made will provide juries with a useful tool for judging the accuracy of the identification.
  • Instructions — The person viewing the lineup should be told that the perpetrator may not be in the lineup and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether the witness identifies a suspect.
  • Videotape the procedure — The report recommends that police electronically record the identification procedure to preserve a permanent record of the procedure.

Most recent data from the National Registry of Exonerations shows that for the 1,467 wrongful convictions currently in the registry, 35% had mistaken eyewitness identification as a contributing factor.

See the Innocence Project posting here.

Tuesday’s Quick Clicks…

Magazine tells how prosecutors became ‘kings of the courtoom’

“Most prosecutors are hard-working, honest and modestly paid,” The Economist says. “But they have accumulated so much power that abuse is inevitable.” The magazine explains how prosecutors became “the kings of the courtroom,” and how this contributes to wrongful convictions, here.

Weekend Quick Clicks…

New Scholarship Spotlight: Criminologizing Wrongful Convictions

Professor Michael Naughten has posted the above-titled article on The British Journal of Criminology.  Download here.  The abstract states:

This article considers the apparent lack of serious engagement with issues pertaining to wrongful convictions by criminology at present. It seeks to address this by criminologizing wrongful convictions in two senses: firstly, by highlighting a variety of forms of intentional law or rule breaking by police officers and prosecutors in the causation of wrongful convictions that in other circumstances would likely be treated as crime and dealt with as such; and, secondly, to reveal the extent to which such powerful criminal justice system agents can cause profound and wide-ranging forms of harm to victims of wrongful convictions, their families and society as a whole with almost total impunity. In so doing, the relevance of the study of the intentional forms of crime and deviance committed by criminal justice system agents in the manufacture of wrongful convictions to both arms of the criminological divide is emphasized: mainstream and critical criminology. The overall aim is to show that the study of wrongful convictions can further extend and enrich existing criminological epistemology in vital and important ways and can even contribute to the prevention and possible elimination of those that are caused deliberately.

 

A Little More on Militarization of the Police

MPolice

According to the latest data from the National Registry of Exonerations, 46% of wrongful convictions have “official (including police) misconduct” as a contributing cause.  The state bestows official “police powers” upon the police, which does, in fact, make them very powerful; and most police misconduct is manifested in the form of abuse of power, rather than simple error.  In recent years, we have, increasingly, given the police not just “police power” but “military power.”  As Lord Acton so insightfully stated in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Giving military power to police brings them that much closer to absolute power, and that power becomes easier and easier to misuse.  This is compounded by the fact that the police have a demonstrated history of not being good at “policing” themselves, and official police oversight is perfunctory.  Police departments will claim to have “internal affairs” divisions.  I submit this like having the fox watch the henhouse, and they apparently don’t work, because police misconduct persists, and “official misconduct” continues to contribute to 46% of wrongful convictions.

See our previous WCB post about the militarization of police here.

Everyone has recoiled at what has recently transpired in Ferguson, MO.  A recent NY Times article relates events in Ferguson to the militarization of police:  here.

This all started in 1990 with Section 1208 of the National Defense Authorization Act passed by Congress.  In 1996 Section 1208 was replaced with the Section 1033 DOD program, which is still in place today.  And with the 1033 program in place, the wind down of the Iraq war opened the floodgates of military equipment available to police departments.  See the Newsweek article How America’s Police Became an Army: The 1033 Program.  See also the NY Times article War Gear Flows to Police Departments.  While this was certainly well intentioned, the legislators failed to grasp the psychological impact this would have on the people who would actually be using the equipment.

All the military equipment and fire power is scary, but all that stuff is really just an “enabler.”  What’s really scary is what’s going on in the brains of the cops.  They seem to be increasingly adopting a “battlefield” mindset – vanquish the enemy – and giving them MRAP’s and M-16’s substantially reinforces that state of mind.  Plus, if the police have all this stuff, of course they’re going to want to use it.  For example, we’ve seen the evolution of  excessive use of SWAT teams.  SWAT teams have been around since the 1960’s, but SWAT teams are now commonly used to perform such routine functions as serving warrants and making simple arrests.  There was a recent (Feb. 2014) debate between Radley Balko, Washington Post investigative reporter and author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop,” and Maricopa County (AZ) Attorney Bill Montgomery about the militarization of our domestic police. During this debate, Mr. Montgomery stated, “These ‘elite’ officers have to stay sharp and on alert. They have to practice.”  Practice by having a SWAT team storm a young mother’s home at 3:00 AM to serve a warrant and make an arrest?  Might I suggest this is “over the top?”

As an example of “military mindset,” I was recently startled by a news photograph of a police officer with what appears to be military style campaign ribbons on his uniform.  Campaign ribbons?  On a police uniform?  What’s up with that?  If this isn’t an indicator of a military mindset, what is?

Police Campaign Ribbons

If the situation calls for military intervention, then call in the National Guard.  That’s what they’re for.  But we just can’t have the “military” patrolling our streets and enforcing the law on a routine basis.

The Innocent on Death Row – NY Times Editorial

We (Martin Yant) recently reported here on the WCB about the North Carolina exoneration of death row inmate Henry Lee McCollum.  McCollum’s exoneration has prompted a highly compelling editorial by the The NY Times editorial board.  That editorial with active links appears here.  It appears below without embedded links (bolding emphasis is mine):

The Innocent on Death Row, by THE (NY Times) EDITORIAL BOARD, September 3, 2014

The exoneration of two North Carolina men who spent 30 years in prison — one on death row — provides a textbook example of so much that is broken in the American justice system. And it is further evidence (as though more were needed) that the death penalty is irretrievably flawed as well as immoral.

In late September 1983, an 11-year-old girl named Sabrina Buie was found murdered in a soybean field in Robeson County. She had been raped, beaten with sticks and suffocated with her own underwear.

Within days, police got confessions from two local teenagers, Henry Lee McCollum, 19 at the time, and his half brother, Leon Brown, who was 15. Both were convicted and sentenced to death.

The crime was so horrific that it has echoed for decades through North Carolina politics and beyond. In 1994, after Justice Harry Blackmun of the Supreme Court announced that he opposed capital punishment in all circumstances, Justice Antonin Scalia cited the Buie murder as a case where it was clearly warranted. “How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!” he wrote.

On Tuesday, a state judge ordered both men freed after multiple pieces of evidence, some of which had never been turned over to defense lawyers, proved that neither Mr. McCollum nor Mr. Brown was responsible for the crime. DNA taken from a cigarette found at the crime scene matched a different man, Roscoe Artis, who is already serving life in prison for a similar murder committed just weeks after Sabrina Buie’s killing.

Virtually everything about the arrests, confessions, trial and convictions of Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown was polluted by official error and misconduct.

No physical evidence linked either man to the crime, so their false confessions, given under duress, were the heart of the case the prosecutors mounted against them. Both men’s confessions were handwritten by police after hours of intense questioning without a lawyer or parent present. Neither was recorded, and both men have maintained their innocence ever since.

Equally disturbing, Mr. Artis was a suspect from the start. Three days before the murder trial began, police requested that a fingerprint from the crime scene be tested for a match with Mr. Artis, who had a long history of sexual assaults against women. The test was never done, and prosecutors never revealed the request to the defense.

It was not until 2011 that the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission, an independent state agency that had taken on the men’s case, discovered the old fingerprint request. The commission also found that multiple statements in the two confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the facts of the crime. In July, the commission finally got the full case file and matched the DNA to Mr. Artis.

None of these pieces mattered to the prosecution in 1984. The prosecutor on the case, Joe Freeman Britt, was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “deadliest prosecutor” for the nearly 50 death sentences he won during his tenure. Almost all have since been overturned.

Mr. McCollum and Mr. Brown, who are now middle-aged, have a hard road ahead. In addition to the difficulties of adapting to life after three decades behind bars, both are intellectually disabled. (Since their conviction, the Supreme Court has banned the death penalty for both juveniles and those with intellectual disabilities.)

Cases of capital prosecutions based on flimsy evidence or marred by prosecutorial misconduct, not to mention racial bias, are distressingly common. Yet, even as death-penalty supporters insist that only guilty people are sent to their death, it is now clear that Justice Scalia was prepared 20 years ago to allow the execution of a man who, it turns out, was innocent.

How many more remain on death row today? Can the American people be assured that none will be killed by the state? For this reason alone, the death penalty must end.

A version of this editorial appears in print on September 4, 2014, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: The Innocent on Death Row.