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January 30, 2014

Exoneration Bills Pass Senate Committee, Chairman Takes Shot at Vt. Supreme Court

Dick Sears 2Two bills designed to prevent false confessions and improve witness identification practices passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, cheering reformers seeking to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions.

After the votes, the influential chairman of the committee took an unusual shot at the Vermont Supreme Court — which Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) said has dallied in deciding whether another reform designed to protect innocent defendants can be implemented. 

Both bills that unanimously passed the committee Thursday were promoted by the Innocence Project, a national organization that champions DNA testing and has helped exonerate 312 convicts since 1989.

One of the bills requires police to electronically record confessions in homicide and sex assault cases, to preserve a record of potentially false confessions. In about 25 percent of the 312 exonerations, the innocent defendant had initially given offered a wrongful confession or admission during high-pressure interviews with investigators, the Innocence Project says.

The other bill would reform police lineups. It would implement "blind" police lineup procedures, in which the officer administering the lineup is unaware of who the suspected guilty party is, require "fillers" in a photo or live lineup to resemble the eyewitnesses' description of the perpetrator, and force every police agency to develop eyewitness identification policies. Mistaken identifications by witnesses contributed to more than 70 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence, the Innocence Project says.

If signed into law, the bills would take Vermont a step closer to being a national leader in combating wrongful convictions, Innocence Project policy advocate Rebecca Brown said in an interview after the hearing.

Police agencies support the bills, Vermont State Police Major Glenn Hall said. The Vermont State Police already record most confessions, Hall said, in an effort to provide compelling evidence to juries. 

"It's consistent with our practices already," Hall said. "We always strive to have video and audio. We certainly support the concept."

If the bills pass, some state police barracks and municipal police agencies may need to upgrade their recording equipment, Hall said.

After the votes were finalized, Sen. Sears took the opportunity to vent that the Vermont Supreme Court has held up implementation of a law he championed several years ago. The law, passed in 2009, allows police to collect DNA samples from defendants who have been charged with felonies.

That law was crafted in part to insure, Sears said, that only guilty people are convicted. But it has never been implemented. Defendants across Vermont challenged the law, saying it is unconstitutional to collect DNA from people who have only been charged, not convicted. The Vermont Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case almost 11 months ago but has not issued a decision, leaving implementation on hold. In the intervening months, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a similar law in Maryland was legal.

"The [Vermont] Supreme Court really bothers me there from both an innocence protection point of view and a law enforcement point of view," Sears said. "I'm just frustrated that we haven't heard from our Supreme Court on this. All of these (cases) have been suspended. I don't know how to respond to that, other than to register it here. It worries me that we have people who are being held or detained for crimes, and the DNA evidence is not available. It's a really important issue."

File photo of Sears by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur.

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