As president and founder of a national non-profit, Healing Justice, an organization that brings together victims of crime and the wrongfully convicted, I have spent my adult life trying to understand and address the totality of harm that is created when the system gets it wrong.
The media naturally focuses on the exoneree, but I know better than anyone that there are so many others who lives are changed forever as a result of a wrongful conviction. Lives like mine.
As a 22-year-old college student in 1984, my world was shattered when a man broke into my home, held me at knife point and raped me. He then left my home and within an hour, raped a second woman.
The police worked to find a suspect. Based on my description a composite sketch was made and then a photo lineup was put together. I picked out a photo. Then they showed me a live lineup and included the man from the photograph.
I picked him out again. Each time the investigating officer congratulated me and said, “Great job. That’s who we thought it was.” For the first time I felt something like relief. I couldn’t undo what had happened to me, but I could help put this monster away.
That man was arrested, tried and convicted of first-degree rape and sentenced to life and 54 years, based in large part on my positive identification of him. This was justice, I thought.
Eleven years later, however, my world once again came crashing in on me when a DNA test revealed that not only had the man been absolutely innocent of the crime against me but another man was guilty of both attacks that night, as well as six more in the following months.
As the story broke, the world wanted to know about the girl who picked an innocent man out of a lineup, not once but twice.
He was misidentified because the procedures used were not grounded in science. In 1984, the research on memory was just beginning. Decades later, we now know the precise way to conduct eyewitness procedures to increase accuracy and reduce error. We know that composite sketches are unreliable and that multiple lineups can cause confirmation bias, meaning the face you think you recognize from the crime is actually the one you recognize from the prior lineup.
And when we know better, we must do better.
Two years ago, I testified in front of Kentucky’s House Judiciary Committee in 2016 to ask — indeed, to plead — with them to do just that. The bill, House Bill 387, required all law enforcement agencies to use four simple, cost-free best practices. These practices are already contained in the model policy of the Kentucky League of Cities, ready for implementation.
Under those practices, police would assign an officer who does not know the identity of the suspect to guide witnesses through a suspect line-up or photo array. Extra people would be added to flesh out line-ups or photo arrays should resemble the suspect as much as possible so the suspect doesn’t stand out. Witnesses should be told the suspect might not be among the group, so they don’t feel obliged to pick someone. And when practical, the witness identification should be recorded.
With me that day were five of Kentucky’s victims of misidentification.
Michael Von Allman of Louisville spent 11 years imprisoned and 17 on parole for a rape he didn’t commit. Four young boys known as the “Louisville Four” nearly lost their freedom for a robbery, but for a videotape proving they had nothing to do with the crime.
On the Judiciary Committee sat a former detective, Denny Butler, whose life was changed forever by the discovery of multiple wrongful convictions.
Other lawmakers, like Sen. Robin Webb, have tried in vain to get basic standards and training implemented. And all over the country are other crime victims like me who the system failed to keep safe by not employing best practices to improve their investigations.
The bill never made it any farther than the committee.
This year, new cases of misidentification in Kentucky have surfaced, and with them, new miscarriages of justice.
As a victim of crime and a leader in the movement for reform, I am outraged and saddened that my story, Von Allman’s story, and the countless others fell on deaf ears.
By contrast, 19 states have updated their practices, including neighboring Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia, as well North Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas. I hope and pray that one day the Kentucky legislature, too, will find the courage to listen.