VA Sheriff Wants to Set Up Innocence Commission

Sheriff Chip Harding of Albemarle County, Virginia wants the state to set up an innocence commission to help prevent wrongful convictions. If established, it would be the second one that I’m aware of, the first being in Dallas, Texas, where District Attorney Craig Watkins set it up. And what Harding wrote to his fellow law enforcement officers asking for their support shows a pretty remarkable amount of integrity and awareness both of his own limitations and the social science data.

“I have spent most of my 40-year criminal justice career investigating serious crime,” Harding wrote. “I took hundreds of felony cases to state and federal courts. I never lost a single one. I thought I was a ‘cutting-edge’ investigator, always doing it the right way.”

“I now know I was wrong.”

Harding said that in recent years he has been enlightened by research into the causes of wrongful convictions, sometimes the result of easily corrected errors such as focusing on one suspect to the exclusion of others or error-prone lineup procedures.

Harding said he has followed up many of the letters with telephone calls.

“Almost across the board they are saying we hope we can find a process to improve our procedures and policies and get them implemented without having it legislated,” he said…

Harding envisions the justice commission studying potential improvements in practices and procedures, and providing a forum for consideration of best practices by prosecutors, investigators, defense lawyers, scientists and academics.

He said procedures and policies that might be studied could include the way suspect photo and in-person lineups are presented to victims and witnesses.

Of the 314 convictions in the U.S. proved wrongful by DNA — 16 of them in Virginia — the Innocence Project found a frequent cause was the misidentification of suspects by victims and witnesses in poorly conducted photo and in-person lineups.

Studies have shown that witnesses should be shown mug shots one at a time, instead of in a photo spread, and the photos should be shown by officers who do not know the suspect so no inadvertent signals can be transmitted to witnesses.

“There are agencies in Virginia not using best practices, and this has proven to contribute to wrongful convictions while allowing the predators to continue victimizing,” Harding wrote in his letter.

Bravo, Mr. Harding. I wish more police officers and prosecutors had this attitude.

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  • notyet

    I was a Mormon until I was 30 and a Republican/Libertarian until I was 53. Because of this I have great respect for people who can admit that their way of looking at the world was in error, change their worldview and most importantly, try to atone for past actions. This man seems to epitomize those attributes. Well done sir.

  • abb3w

    Albemarle is one of those blue islands in Virginia’s larger sea of red, largely a result of the liberal academic sorts associated with the University of Virginia (and the institution’s Jeffersonian heritage).

  • Sastra

    “Almost across the board they are saying we hope we can find a process to improve our procedures and policies and get them implemented without having it legislated,” he said…

    No kidding.

    Q: “What’s the strongest kind of evidence there is?”

    A: “Eyewitness testimony. That’s why we can trust the Gospels; it was written by people who were there and reported what they had seen for themselves.”

    Given how hard it is to get folks to throw out that last part, it will be at least equally hard to get them to throw out that first part.

  • I skimmed the piece you linked to, Ed. It appears that Sheriff Harding is attempting to do the right thing, good for him and GREAT for people whose convictions might be overturned by such a commission.

    Call me cynical, but this:

    ““But what I don’t want to see is an overreaction.” He said he is concerned about the possibility of state mandates, especially unfunded ones that might be impossible for some agencies to meet.”

    reads, to me, like something written by a guy who’s looking to run for another office and wants his Teabaggist boner fidays to be in place. Or he just knows that he can support it, tepidly, because the VA lege will most certainly not want to spend any money to HELP criminals.

    He says he sent out letters to 123 sheriffs; how many counties are there in VA?

  • khms

    Studies have shown that witnesses should be shown mug shots one at a time, instead of in a photo spread

    Interesting. For me, it’s pretty much essential I be able to compare, and compare again, the various options to be able to come up with a definitive answer. I can certainly do that with a photo spread. One at a time – how does that work when I want to compare some of them? Seems like I’d never be able to get better than “I’m not certain” unless the photos are not at all similar, which seems to be counter productive.

    Perhaps the idea is that they’re more likely to chose the guy in the center? Lose photos shifted around more or less at random on the table might help there. Or something. Anything that allows the witness to look at whatever picture they want whenever they want to. But I’d think that that last part would be pretty much essential.