The Oklahoma Senate Judiciary Committee met Monday to study eyewitness misidentification in criminal cases.
State Sen. David Holt, R-Oklahoma City, called an interim study to look at best practices in reforming Oklahoma’s eyewitness ID procedures. Eyewitness identification used to be an ideal tool for convicting criminals, but recent studies have shown witness testimony to be flawed in many cases.
Oklahoma Innocence Project Executive Director Vicki Behenna presented four reforms aimed to fix issues with eyewitness identification. Behenna said the state has spent more than $1.3 million since 2002 to settle wrongful conviction claims.
“Witness Identification used to be the best you can have,” Oklahoma City’s Chief of Police Bill Citty said.
He added that, now, “Law enforcement can no longer say, ‘They ID’d them.’”
Oklahoma City has used revised eyewitness identification procedures since 2013, and Citty said the changes have worked well.
Two men who were wrongfully convicted using the error-prone practice spoke during the interim study. Timothy Durham was wrongly convicted in Tulsa County in the 1990s for the rape of an 11-year-old girl.
“I think that it’s important that the people be able to put a face with a person that this has happened to,” Durham said. “I got put in prison for 3,220 years. It’s a story to tell people who are in a position to help us get these reforms through.”
Thomas Webb was wrongly convicted and imprisoned in the 1980s. He believes eyewitness identifications should be videotaped to ensure law enforcement or prosecutors aren’t weighing in on the witness testimony.
“It’s a lot easier to prevent something than it is to correct something,” Webb said.
Both experts and senators said they hoped to avoid legislation on the issue. Eighteen states, including Texas and Colorado, have enacted reforms, and Behenna said voluntary compliance is ideal.
“Legislation is quickest way to reform,” Behenna acknowledged, but she said the best way is to work directly with law enforcement.
Steve Emmons, the executive director of The Council on Law Enforcement and Education Training, was reluctant to commit to add training in quickly. Emmons said additional training would cost money because the 584 hours required in CLEET training are already filled with required courses.
“Every time we put something new in, we have to take something else out,” Emmons said.
CLEET’s preference, he said, would be to collapse a few other courses and add the eyewitness identification training, rather than to add another day of coursework.