Update (May 18, 1:05 p.m.): Sen. Rodney Ellis just passed the eyewitness reform bill through the Senate without objection. It took all of three minutes. Bill headed to the governor.
Posted earlier: It’s not often you can say a piece of legislation might save lives, but House Bill 215 might do just that.
Known as eyewitness ID reform, the bill would help prevent wrongful convictions in Texas. It would institute best practices for police lineups and greatly reduce the chances that witnesses will mistakenly send an innocent person to prison. Witness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions—it’s a factor in 75 percent of cases later overturned by DNA testing, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. Criminal justice reform advocates have tried for years to reform police lineups. And, finally, it seems the Texas Legislature will pass the bill.
The Senate is expected, perhaps as early as today, to debate HB 215. The bill—authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) and Rep. Pete Gallego (D-Alpine)—has already passed the House. If senators pass it on Wednesday—and they unanimously approved an earlier version—the bill will go to Gov. Rick Perry, who’s indicated he plans to sign it into law.
Under the legislation, the Bill Blackwood Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas would develop a set of best practices to prevent flawed lineup procedures. Policy experts have done extensive study of this area. It’s no secret how lineups can be rigged or how to set up a good one. Texas law enforcement agencies would be strongly encouraged—though not required—to follow these procedures. And if they don’t follow the best practices, they may have to reveal that failure at trial.
There was fresh evidence last week of the need for these reforms. Johnny Pinchback was freed from prison after DNA tests showed he wasn’t the man who sexually assaulted two teenage girls in Dallas in 1984. Both victims misidentified Pinchback as their attacker from a photo spread. Pinchback would spend nearly 27 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, while the actual rapist went free.
And, of course, there’s the most famous case—Tim Cole’s. Texas has exonerated dozens of men in recent years, and several of them have offered moving testimony this session in support of the bill. But it was Cole’s tragic story—his wrongful conviction in Lubbock and subsequent death in prison before he could be exonerated—that perhaps more than any other has helped spur recent reforms to the criminal justice system. HB 215 might prevent others from suffering Cole’s and Pinchback’s fates.