Mistaken eyewitness identification is the major reason innocent people have been sent to prison in Virginia, concluded a two-year study of 11 wrongful convictions reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Preventing such cases could be as simple as changing police procedures or as expensive as improving the quality of legal help given poor people in Virginia, which pays court-appointed lawyers the lowest fees in the nation. A 134-page report was released today by the Innocence Commission for Virginia, an effort of The Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project, the Administration of Justice Program at George Mason University, and The Constitution Project. The 11 selected cases involved serious felonies that occurred since 1980. Each innocent person was either pardoned or cleared by a court, or a prosecutor conceded that the wrong person had been convicted. The 11 spent a total of 118 years behind bars.
The commission was critical of what it called “tunnel vision” by police when investigating a crime. In such cases, police might ignore evidence pointing to a suspect other than the one they believe to be guilty. The panel made recommendations it believes could dramatically reduce the risk of wrongful convictions. Among them: Videotape interrogations in serious felony investigations; Train law-enforcement officers to avoid “tunnel vision;” Pay lawyers representing indigent defendants enough to ensure effective and adequate representation; Allow those who pleaded guilty to petition the courts for a chance to prove their innocence; Have localities maintain an open-file policy in which prosecutors share with the defense all the information that law enforcement and prosecutors have collected, with the exception of information that could endanger witnesses or jeopardize public safety.