New La. law aims to reduce wrongful convictions

The state will now allow testimony during criminal trials from experts on eyewitness identification

Lea Skene
The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

BATON ROUGE, La. — Louisiana has joined the vast majority of other states in allowing testimony during criminal trials from experts on eyewitness identification, including its sometimes unreliable nature — a move advocates hope will reduce wrongful convictions.

Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a bill into law Wednesday that's meant to create more-informed juries in cases that hinge on a witness' ability to accurately identify the suspect.

Mistaken eyewitness identifications are often to blame for wrongful convictions. Advancements in DNA and fingerprint testing have illuminated those shortcomings and cleared defendants in several recent high profile cases across Louisiana, which has long been among states with the most exonerations per capita.

Archie Williams was exonerated in March after spending 36 years in prison for a 1982 rape of a Baton Rouge housewife. Earlier this year, fingerprint technology linked the crime to another man — a serial rapist who had continued to terrorize other women across Baton Rouge for years after Williams' conviction.

The conviction of Williams was based almost solely on the victim's positive identification of him in a photo lineup.

And Wilbert Jones spent more than 45 years behind bars in another Baton Rouge rape case but was released in 2017 after a judge ruled that crucial evidence implicating another man had been withheld from his defense.

Advocates argue that both those cases could have benefited from expert testimony to help jurors understand why eyewitness identification of suspects sometimes suffers from the failures of human vision and memory.

"Many factors influence the visual perceptual experience: dim illumination and brief viewing times, large viewing distances, duress, elevated emotions, and the presence of a visually distracting element such as a gun or a knife," researchers wrote in a 2014 study by the National Academy of Sciences.

"We also have learned that these qualified perceptual experiences are stored by a system of memory that is highly malleable and continuously evolving … Unknown to the individual, memories are forgotten, reconstructed, updated and distorted," the researchers added.

The report notes that a more confident witness doesn't mean an accurate identification. In fact, there's no scientific correlation between confidence and accuracy.

That common misconception was on display in Williams' 1983 trial when prosecutors told jurors that Williams' face was "burned in the mind" of the victim. Meanwhile his defense attorney cautioned against placing too much faith in a single eyewitness identification, especially when the victim and suspect have different racial backgrounds.

The study also recommends giving judges the discretion to allow expert testimony on the topic, a recommendation that Louisiana legislators adhered to when they recently approved changing state law. The new law, however, does not allow for the possibility of such testimony in all cases — only those in which the eyewitness identification is not corroborated by physical or scientific evidence.

Jones was present at the bill signing ceremony on Wednesday, almost two years after his exoneration. He has spent that time catching up with relatives, working at McDonald's, registering to vote and getting married.

"It was frustrating what happened to me," he said. "We need to correct these things in Louisiana. … I don't want anyone else to go through what I went through."

Attorneys with the Innocence Project New Orleans who were involved in both Jones' and Williams' cases said Louisiana is finally taking steps to protect its residents from the dangers of outdated judicial practices.

"There's a growing sense that Louisiana legislators are tired of being seen as an outlier — being behind other states in adopting reforms that improve the criminal justice system," said Kia Hall Hayes, a staff attorney with the organization.

"We're finally seeing some real progress," she said, pointing to the 2017 criminal justice reform package that has reduced the state's prison population and the 2018 popular vote to ban non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal cases.

Hayes said the new law overrules a 1982 state Supreme Court decision that barred memory and eyewitness experts from testifying at all criminal trials. She said that decision reflected a lack of scientific research on the topic, which has been expanded in the decades since.

The latest change also builds upon a 2018 bill that established statewide standards dictating how law enforcement agencies conduct eyewitness identifications, including having all photo lineups administered by someone with no knowledge of who the suspect is.

Both bills received support from the Louisiana District Attorneys Association, which also helped draft the language that ultimately was signed into law.

Loren Lampert, longtime prosecutor and associate director of the group, said the law is relatively narrow in terms of the cases it applies to, which guards against widespread discrediting of witness testimony at criminal trials. He also noted that experts are not allowed to comment on a specific eyewitness identification, but rather provide a broader scientific context in which jurors can consider that evidence.

"No one intended this law as a tool to attack victims," he said. "But I can also tell you that prosecutors across the state will do everything in our power to make sure it's not used that way."

Lampert also said he hopes the change brings common sense to the process of evaluating eyewitness testimony, which will help juries arrive at the correct verdicts.

"No one is more upset by the allegation of a wrongful conviction than prosecutors (because) when we mistakenly convict the wrong person, the right person is going unpunished," he said. "Every little step we take towards solidifying the search for truth is a positive step."


©2019 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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