HARTFORD, Conn. -- Eyewitness identification used to be the gold standard in criminal cases, but confidence in it has wavered as, increasingly, DNA is used to overturn convictions that were based on such evidence.
Recognizing the fallibility of witness identification, state lawmakers formed a task force to find ways to improve the reliability of that familiar staple of police work, the lineup.
At its first meeting, the task force Wednesday heard from Gary L. Wells, a professor at Iowa State University and a national expert on eyewitness identification. Wells has studied ways to improve the process, including presenting members of a lineup one at a time instead of as a group.
Wells, who testified for more than two hours, said eyewitness identification is far less reliable than most people believe. He cited a study by the Innocence Project, which found that 75 percent of people later exonerated by DNA evidence were misidentified as a suspect by an eyewitness.
The Connecticut case of James Tillman loomed over the discussion. Tillman spent 18 years in prison on a kidnapping and rape conviction before DNA evidence exonerated him, even though the victim had picked out his photo and identified him in court as her assailant.
Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane said the Tillman case "haunts him."
Kane, who sits on the task force, said police and prosecutors are very aware of the fallibility of eyewitnesses.
The mission now, Kane said after the meeting, is "to learn as much as we can about identification procedures, how they help us get to the truth and how what we do or don't do can affect our ability to get to the truth...it's not as simple...as it seems."
Lawmakers formed the task force during the 2011 legislative session after retired state Supreme Court Justice David Borden contacted members of the legislature's judiciary committee.
"He came to us and said, 'Look, we've got to find a better way of doing this,' " said Rep. Gerald Fox, a Stamford Democrat and co-chairman of the committee.
The debate over the effectiveness of eyewitness identification is unfolding across the nation. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on the issue next month.
Connecticut's task force consists of academics, defense attorneys, police officers and prosecutors. The same public act that created the panel also stipulates that local police departments and the state Department of Public Safety adopt new rules regarding lineups by Jan. 1. Specifically, the law states that whenever practical, the officer conducting the lineup -- be it live or using photos -- not know who the real suspect is.
The Darien Police Department is already doing that, said the town's police chief, Duane Lovello. "We just think it's a better way of administering a lineup," said Lovello, who serves on the task force. Misidentifying a suspect is "a waste of police resources," he said.
Copyright 2011 - The Hartford Courant, Conn.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service