Despite the demise of a similar bill last year in the Public Safety committee, Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, has introduced a new bill aimed at ensuring that eyewitness testimony is as reliable as possible in criminal cases.
While most people, and juries, likely would argue that eyewitness testimony is a crucial component in the prosecution of accused criminals, studies have shown that the recollections of crime victims are notoriously unreliable.
“People’s memories are not as keen as they think they are,” Holder-Winfield said. “It’s been demonstrated over and over with different investigations.”
Holder-Winfield pointed to a recent “60 Minutes” special, centered on a book called “Picking Cotton” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo. The book is the true story of Thompson-Cannino, a sexual assault victim who misidentified Cotton as her attacker. It took Cotton 11 years to clear his name.
Thompson-Cannino’s experience is not uncommon, according to a research article on the findings of a joint study by psychologists from Iowa State University, Tufts University, and Rhode Island College. That study found that even people who make a report soon after an incident are subject to impression by misinformation.
“These results confirm the notion that recall not only indicates what one knows, but also changes what one knows, and sometimes these changes can have far-reaching, and perhaps negative, consequences,” the report read.
While noting there are jurisdictions in Connecticut that already have procedures in place to ensure eyewitness testimony is consistently recorded in a way that reduces the potential for misinformation, Holder-Winfield said it’s long past time the state implements uniform procedures.
“The bill that I’m putting forward goes a long way to making sure that we don’t make the kind of mistakes we’ve made in the past because of the faulty nature of the human mind,” he said. “And so what I’m trying to do is make sure we are keeping the public safe by making sure we have the right people in prison as opposed to the wrong people and the right people still going free.”
The changes mostly concern how victims are introduced to lineups of potential offenders.
“One of the things that’s key to this issue you actually should introduce the notion to the person that the suspect may not actually be in the lineup,” Holder-Winfield said. “Because sometimes the victim feels the pressure to identify someone because they think the person has to be in the lineup.”
Another recommendation is the implementation of sequential lineups rather than traditional lineups where a victim looks at many potential offenders at the same time. In a sequential lineup, a victim is shown one offender — or a picture of one offender — at a time.
Holder-Winfield said one of the reasons the bill was not adopted last year was a perception by some that he didn’t know that some law enforcement agencies already used the prescribed method.
“Let me say that there are some jurisdictions that do already do what I’m looking to have done. I want to acknowledge that because I think what has happened thus far with me pushing the bill is people think I didn’t understand that. I understand that. I’m trying to make sure the state as a whole has it,” he said.
However, the bill was opposed in a public hearing last March by both Chief State’s Attorney Kevin T. Kane and the heads of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association who thought it was an example of the legislature overreaching into law enforcement affairs.
“[The bill] represents unwarranted intrusion into law enforcement practices that should be determined by the law enforcement profession under the ever-present and pain-painstakingly thorough review by the courts,” Kane said.
“Like similar proposals in years past, it ignores measures already put in place by Connecticut police and prosecutors to remove suggestion from the identification process,” said Anthony Salvatore and James Strillacci of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association. “More objectionable, it would mandate sequential lineups, whose effectiveness has been touted by advocates but remains unproven by real-life research.”
But Holder-Winfield maintains the necessity of streamlining the practices of the state’s law enforcement community.
“It’s a good piece of law and it’s something we should do. If we’re talking about efficiencies in government and doing things better, this goes a long way towards doing that.”