WASHINGTON D.C. – Justice Department officials and several police chiefs have released recommendations for law enforcement agencies nationwide to change investigative procedures to prevent wrongful convictions.
While there is no way of knowing how many people are wrongfully convicted each year, the officials noted that the National Registry of Exonerations tallies roughly 1,100 exonerations from 1989 to 2012. The recommendations call for several investigative reforms to prevent wrongful arrests from occurring in the first place.
Released last month, the report is co-produced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.
A greater scrutiny of eyewitness identifications is among recommendations. Another is stronger supervision of police interviews with suspects to avoid misidentifications and false confessions. Recording police interviews with suspects can help ensure confessions aren’t coerced, according to report released Dec. 3.
In one example noted, Mark Clements was convicted of arson and four counts of murder in 1982 after he confessed to Chicago Police. Clements’ sentence was vacated in 2009 when court documents revealed that details in his confession did not match the facts of the crime. Only 16 at the time of his arrest, Clements says he was physically intimidated by police into making a confession.
According to the report, law enforcement agencies “at the minimum” should record audio of all interviews involving major crimes. But the Justice Department is not necessarily going to require its own law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to follow these standards and audio record interviews.
Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason insists that her office has no authority over the federal agencies.
“Our mission is to help our state, local and tribal partners on these issues,” said Mason, who oversees the department’s Office of Justice Programs.
‘Trust in our justice system’
Marvin Anderson spent 15 years in prison for a rape he did not commit before being exonerated in 2002. He spoke of his ordeal at the Dec. 3, press conference in Washington D.C. with law enforcement officials to announce the recommendations.
“As a child you grow up to believe, to trust in our justice system. All of that was taken away from me,” Anderson said. “With this report you are telling me, and society as a whole, that you see there is work to be done. This is a beginning.”
Anderson, who was released after DNA testing proved his innocence, now serves as a board member on The Innocence Project, a nonprofit organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions. Another recommendation is to use science to bolster investigations.
“Tunnel vision” can cause investigators to ignore evidence that proves innocence, said Gregory Ridgeway, acting director of the National Institute of Justice, the “science wing” of the Justice Department.
“So if we know exculpatory evidence can show up at any time during the process, where does it really show up? Is it in fingerprint examination? Is it in witness ID?” Ridgeway said. “Where can we find opportunities to do a double-blind check on that evidence?”
Walter McNeil, chief of police in Quincy, Fla., said the report is “merely a document. It now has to live, and to bring life to this document will require leadership from police chiefs and police leaders all across our nation.”
The police chief’s association will be doing outreach to get other law enforcement leaders on board with the recommendations. The group is also in the process of creating standards for audio and video recording of suspect interviews.