CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Lawmakers are hoping to curb instances when witnesses finger suspects for crimes they did not commit through new legislation that will push police agencies to create uniform rules for eyewitness identification procedures.
Last month, Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, introduced a bill that would require every police department in the state to have a written policy for "lineups."
"I think eyewitness evidence can be very powerful and compelling evidence," said Laird, a former Fayette County sheriff. "Therefore, I think it's important that we get it right."
The bill calls for investigators to keep a written or video record of each lineup that includes the date and time of the lineup, the names of every person in the lineup, and any words the witness uses to describe the person that supposedly committed the crime.
The legislation also strongly suggests that police agencies conduct "blind" lineups, or lineups conducted by an investigator that does not know the identity of the suspect.
But while the bill requires departments to have a written policy in place, police agencies can still implement their own protocol.
"I think it's important to realize that these are suggestive processes and procedures rather than what could be considered as required additional demands," Laird said. "It's not meant to usurp the discretionary standards within the framework of the law enforcement profession."
Eyewitness misidentification is one of the largest causes of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, a national nonprofit group that uses DNA testing to fight for prisoners who claim innocence.
Of the first 239 people that the Innocence Project has helped exonerate, 75 percent were victims of witnesses who pointed out the wrong suspect. In most of those instances, the false identification was attributed to either a faulty live lineup, or photo array.
During lineups, investigators sometimes give subtle hints to witnesses, either intentionally or unintentionally, that lead them to select the wrong suspect. In one Innocence Project case, a man was tried and convicted of rape after a witness picked his photo out of an array. Police had marked the photo with an R.