Sponsor guts Nevada bill on eyewitness accounts
(AP) – Before taking questions about a proposal to set procedures for the eyewitness identification of criminal suspects, the bill’s sponsor told members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee to throw away their notes.
Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, said Thursday that her goal was to establish procedures to reduce the inherently faulty nature of eyewitness testimony, but the bill wasn’t an effective way to do it.
“We didn’t implement things we know could reduce those things,” Flores said, but she added that the amendment she introduced, which appears to strike at least 90 percent of the original text of AB107, would do just that.
Instead of directing law enforcement agencies to establish standards and criteria for a specific list of scenarios, like suspect lineups and photo arrays, the amended measure just tells them to enact procedures “as appropriate.”
Flores, a former street gang member, said she has been accused of many things – though never wrongly identified. The problem, she said, is that people make mistakes, and faulty evidence has landed at least 260 people in jail nationwide for crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit.
Flores said DNA exonerations have occurred in 12 states and the District of Columbia, but that in cases where there is no biological evidence, there is no backstop. The intent of AB107, she said, is to provide a safety net against inaccurate eyewitness testimony.
According to Flores and other witnesses who testified during Thursday’s hearing, the key to minimizing incorrect identifications comes down to educating law enforcement professionals on how to handle eyewitnesses.
Dr. Robert Shomer, an expert who specializes in forensic psychology, told the committee that training was essential because common theories about eyewitnesses’ memory – that the stress of an incident turns the victim into the equivalent of a video recorder that can recall events exactly – has been proven incorrect time and time again.
“Eyewitness testimony under the very best of circumstances works like flipping a coin,” he said.
Flores and other supporters are careful to note that the bill is a safeguard and not prompted by any misconduct by Nevada law enforcement.
But opponents said the bill and Flores’ amendment don’t fix what they consider a nonexistent problem, particularly because no one supporting the bill has pointed to a problem with how Nevada currently handles eyewitnesses.
Chuck Callaway of the Las Vegas Police Department took particular issue with Flores’ citation that DNA has freed more than 260 people nationwide. Callaway asked how many of those convictions were due to eyewitness testimony versus circumstantial evidence or other factors.
He also said that more than 260 wrongful convictions nationwide is a low number when considering that the overall prison population in the U.S. hovers around 1.6 million.
The committee didn’t take any action on the bill Thursday.