MONTPELIER -- Vermont lawmakers considering legislation to tighten police procedures heard Thursday from a Massachusetts man who served 19 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerated him in two rapes, and from a North Carolina woman whose testimony in a rape case also sent the wrong man to prison.
Officials with the Innocence Project told the House and Senate Judiciary committees that the group had been involved in the reversal of more than 300 felony convictions around the country, and that more than three-quarters of them were based at least in part on witnesses fingering the wrong person as perpetrator.
Wrongful convictions hurt not just defendants, but allow real perpetrators to continue committing crimes, said Rebecca Brown, director of state policy for the Innocence Project. The 312 cases in which the group has helped prove people's innocence involved more than 70 rapes and 30 murders for which "the innocent spent time behind bars," she said.
Lawmakers are considering two bills. One would address eyewitness misidentifications, which often begin when a crime victim is asked to pick a perpetrator out of a series of photographs or a row of people.
Jennifer Thompson, who testified by telephone, told committee members that she was absolutely certain when she identified Ronald Cotton of Burlington, N.C., as the man who raped her, and that she was devastated when DNA evidence exonerated him after years in prison. She since has become an activist for the rights of the falsely accused.
Vermont's bill calls for a type of police lineups in which the officer conducting them doesn't know which participant is the suspect and therefore can't influence the witness. The proposal also calls for others in the lineup to "resemble the eyewitness' description of the perpetrator."
Some lawmakers questioned whether this last provision would be practical in all cases. Sen. Joe Benning, a Caledonia Republican who works as a criminal defense attorney, spoke of a person he represented who had pictures of eyeballs tattooed on the outsides of his eyelids, so his eyes looked open when they were closed.
The other bill under consideration would call for taping -- preferably videotaping -- of police interrogations in cases of homicide or sexual assault.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said he could not respond to the legislation in detail but was generally supportive. He said state police already have procedures in place to ensure the fairness and accuracy of lineups, and that both cruisers and interview rooms at state police barracks have recording devices.