Sheriff Chip Harding of Albemarle County, Virginia wants the state to set up an innocence commission to help prevent wrongful convictions. If established, it would be the second one that I’m aware of, the first being in Dallas, Texas, where District Attorney Craig Watkins set it up. And what Harding wrote to his fellow law enforcement officers asking for their support shows a pretty remarkable amount of integrity and awareness both of his own limitations and the social science data.
“I have spent most of my 40-year criminal justice career investigating serious crime,” Harding wrote. “I took hundreds of felony cases to state and federal courts. I never lost a single one. I thought I was a ‘cutting-edge’ investigator, always doing it the right way.”
“I now know I was wrong.”
Harding said that in recent years he has been enlightened by research into the causes of wrongful convictions, sometimes the result of easily corrected errors such as focusing on one suspect to the exclusion of others or error-prone lineup procedures.
Harding said he has followed up many of the letters with telephone calls.
“Almost across the board they are saying we hope we can find a process to improve our procedures and policies and get them implemented without having it legislated,” he said…
Harding envisions the justice commission studying potential improvements in practices and procedures, and providing a forum for consideration of best practices by prosecutors, investigators, defense lawyers, scientists and academics.
He said procedures and policies that might be studied could include the way suspect photo and in-person lineups are presented to victims and witnesses.
Of the 314 convictions in the U.S. proved wrongful by DNA — 16 of them in Virginia — the Innocence Project found a frequent cause was the misidentification of suspects by victims and witnesses in poorly conducted photo and in-person lineups.
Studies have shown that witnesses should be shown mug shots one at a time, instead of in a photo spread, and the photos should be shown by officers who do not know the suspect so no inadvertent signals can be transmitted to witnesses.
“There are agencies in Virginia not using best practices, and this has proven to contribute to wrongful convictions while allowing the predators to continue victimizing,” Harding wrote in his letter.
Bravo, Mr. Harding. I wish more police officers and prosecutors had this attitude.