San Jose Mercury News: Santa Clara County DA program aims to boost reliability of eyewitness identifications

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. Implementing this program is a step in the right direction to make sure that justice can be properly carried out.  Submission post by Charisse Domingo


By Tracey Kaplan
02/04/2012 06:40:08 AM PST

To boost the reliability of eyewitness identifications, every police department in Santa Clara County has recently begun videotaping or recording most witnesses as they pick out a suspect from a set of photos or a live lineup.

The practice, spearheaded by District Attorney Jeff Rosen, is the latest technique law enforcement agencies across the nation are using to try to reduce wrongful convictions. In the Bay Area, police in San Francisco, Oakland and Pleasant Hill are among those who also have adopted it.

But Santa Clara County is believed to be the only county in the state where every police agency from the Highway Patrol to campus officers at San Jose State has signed a protocol agreeing to it.

“It just makes sense,” Rosen said. “I very much believe that in five years, most counties will be doing everything we do here.”

In 2003, the county became the first in the state to adopt a procedure called a “double-blind sequential” lineup that still isn’t standard in California. Under the procedure, officers don’t know which photo or person is the actual suspect, so they can’t even inadvertently influence witnesses’ choices. And the photos are shown one at a time rather than all at once because researchers have found that identifications are more accurate when witnesses can’t compare images.

The addition of videotaping or recording lineups allows prosecutors, defense attorneys and juries to get a better idea than from reading a police report how confident witnesses were that the person they picked out actually committed the crime.

“This is an excellent plan and will provide a useful record for everyone who reviews the case — prosecution, defense, judge and jury,” Public Defender Mary Greenwood said. “It is an established best practice and is good on the government transparency front as well.”

It also helps police, said Los Altos police Chief Tuck Younis, the immediate past chairman of the Police Chiefs Association of Santa Clara County.

“I think it’s an outstanding process,” Younis said. “It removes any concerns about police manipulation of the process.”

In San Mateo County, prosecutors and police don’t use the procedure, but that may change. “Santa Clara County is ahead of the curve,” said San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe.

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