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Why better eyewitness ID procedures matter

Because bad eyewitness ID procedures can lead to the wrong people being executed.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, stopped short of claiming Texas wrongfully executed suspect Carlos DeLuna for the February 1983 murder of store clerk Wanda Lopez.

Gallego, however, said the way Corpus Christi police handled the suspect’s identification was a “textbook example” of why the system needs to be reformed.

“What appears to be very faulty eyewitness identification was the main evidence used to reach a conviction in this case,” Ellis said in an email.

“… The chief witness appears to have gone back and forth on how certain he was that Mr. DeLuna was the culprit. You cannot have this level of uncertainty in death penalty cases.”

Accounts of the crime, the investigation and DeLuna’s prosecution were presented in a 400-page article published Tuesday in the Columbia Human Rights Law Review. Columbia University Law School authors argue that the crime actually was committed by Carlos Hernandez, a DeLuna acquaintance with a history of convenience store robberies. Hernandez, the article says, boasted of killing the store clerk

DeLuna was executed by injection in 1989. Hernandez died in prison, convicted of a knife attack on a female acquaintance, in 1999.

Of four people who saw events connected to the crime, only one, car salesman Kevan Baker, saw Lopez struggle with her assailant, the journal article says. Baker initially described a man who did not resemble DeLuna but changed his story after police brought DeLuna to the store.

Baker later told researchers he was only 70 percent sure of his identification, the journal says. Had police not told him DeLuna had been apprehended nearby, he would have been only 50 percent certain, he said.

That Columbia Human Rights Law Review article is here. The Trib has an interview with its author, and notes that a Chicago Tribune investigation from 2004 came to the same conclusion. The prosecutor in that case disputes these findings, which as we’ve seen with Todd Willingham and others is not unusual. What’s also not unusual is the fact that there was a questionable eyewitness ID as a key aspect to the state’s case. According to the Innocence Project, of the first 289 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States, “Eyewitness Misidentification Testimony was a factor in nearly 75 percent of post-conviction DNA exoneration cases in the U.S., making it the leading cause of these wrongful convictions”. Getting eyewitness procedures right up front can and will avoid this problem. As Grits notes, Texas law-enforcement agencies must have in place by September 1 new procedures developed by the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas (LEMIT) at Sam Houston State. Not all of what Ellis and Gallego’s legislation would do is required, however, and there continues to be resistance to these reforms from within law enforcement. We’re heading in the right direction, but we’re not where we need to be just yet. Mark Bennett has more.

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