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Texas law standardizes some police methodologies

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Amarillo, TX - Change is underway for law enforcement across the state as a new law standardizes police procedure for gathering eyewitness testimony.

Senate Bill 121, also known as the "Eyewitness ID Law," was enacted last year, and establishes a model policy for questioning witnesses.

The policy includes such stipulations as making sure witnesses know they do not have to select any suspect in a photo lineup, and that any investigator conducting the interview does not know who the suspect is, much like a double-blind experiment in a laboratory setting.

Sergeant Brent Barbee with the Amarillo Police Department says APD has been operating similarly for years before the law was enacted and sees the necessity of such a policy, as he says, "If you do something that causes the wrong person to be picked out of a lineup, and that person is charged based on that lineup, you now have two problems:  not only do you have someone wrongfully charged and possibly wrongfully convicted, you have the real bad guy out on the street."

Dr. Harry Hueston II, a Criminal Justice professor at West Texas A & M University and retired police chief, says the idea behind the law is to minimize human influence and maximize the validity of eyewitness testimony, as he says, "Eyewitness testimony isn't the most reliable.  And so what we're trying to see here is, 'How can we take a good eyewitness and make sure that everything that good eyewitness has, we've removed all the other influences."

Proponents of the law say it reduce the potential for a wrongful conviction, as Amarillo attorney and Innocence Project of Texas member says, "I think in the long run it's going to really improve criminal justice in Texas, and I think in the long run it's going to reduce the probability of people being wrongfully convicted - that's the point of it.  It's a good step forward for Texas.  We now actually have one of the best eyewitness ID laws in the country; most states don't have any law at all concerning it."

Critics of the law argue that false convictions are extremely rare, and that the manpower and funds behind enforcing it would be much better utilized elsewhere, as Randall County District Attorney James Farren says, "If we have a miniscule problem and we take efforts to make it better, we're going to have a miniscule impact.  It will impact a very tiny part of cases that we investigate and prosecute.  We're opposed to any innocent person being convicted, but we will never create a perfect system.  I just think we could spend our resources and time on other things that would be more beneficial."

Under the statute, Texas law enforcement agencies were required to adopt their own policies by September 1, 2012.

The Law Enforcement Institute of Texas out of Sam Houston State University, will oversee and grade those policies.

The Innocence Project of Texas is also conducting their own voluntary grading system for all Texas law enforcement agencies.

Those results are expected to be out by the end of October.

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