Imagine the prison door slamming closed, locking you away from society for a crime you did not commit. Ten, twenty, fifty years stretching in front of you—no family, no career, no possessions, no life.
The numbers are startling. The first DNA exoneration in the United States occurred in 1989, and since 2000, there have been 144 exonerations.
The Innocence Project was founded in 1992 to assist prisoners who could be proven innocent through DNA testing. The Georgia Innocence Project, based on the same model, was launched five years ago, and has since won the exoneration of three men based on DNA evidence. Clarence Harrison, Robert Clark, and Willie O. “Pete” Williams served a combined sixty-five years in prison for crimes they did not commit. But they are now free.
Aimee Maxwell is the executive director of the Georgia Innocence Project, and agreed to answer questions about her experiences at the helm of the nonprofit, her effort to serve prisoners in Alabama, and her mission to revamp eyewitness identifications.
Q: The Georgia House hearings on eyewitness identification procedures are currently being held. What would you most like to see come of these hearings?
A: We hope these hearings will bring all interested parties (law enforcement, prosecutors, and legislators) to the table to discuss the need for eyewitness identification reform. More than 75 percent of the 207 Americans exonerated by DNA evidence were mistakenly identified by victims and/or witnesses to the crimes for which they were wrongly convicted. In Georgia, it’s 100 percent: all six Georgia exonerees were identified on the witness stand by the victims. Sadly, those victims were just mistaken. And that cost these six Georgia men, collectively, nearly one hundred years in prison and left the true perpetrators free to hurt others victims.
Q: Your group has analyzed responses from 296 law enforcement agencies around the state regarding their eyewitness ID procedures. Based on this, what are the specific changes you’d like to see in eyewitness identification procedures?
A: We’d like to see best practices implemented statewide as they currently are in New Jersey and North Carolina. These best practices include what’s called “sequential double blind protocol.” It sounds very complicated but is actually simple.
When a line-up is done, with photographs or with people in a room (à la Law and Order), those photos or those line-up subjects should be shown to the eyewitness one at a time instead of all at once. That’s the “sequential” part of the protocol, and it requires the eyewitness to compare the images to memory of the perpetrator instead of to the other images.
The “double blind” portion simply asks that the officer administering the line-up not have knowledge about whether a suspect is in the line-up and that the officer communicate that information to the eyewitness.
We’d also like to see video or audio recording of eyewitness statements. The inflection that comes out on tape doesn’t come out on paper. To some degree, you can tell how sure a person is about an ID if you can hear the spoken word. The same words on paper won’t indicate that degree of surety.
And we’d also like officers to ask eyewitnesses as soon as possible about how sure they are about an identification and to what degree. One of the best ways to do this is to ask the eyewitness to gauge a percentage of how sure he or she is about the identification.
Q: How receptive have politicians been to GIP’s agenda? Do you find the issues you’re fighting for become politicized? If so, how do you combat that?
A: GIP isn’t a political organization; we know that politicians on both sides of the aisle want justice for all their constituents. That having been said, our bill addressing eyewitness identification reform didn’t make it out of committee in either the 2005 or 2006 Georgia legislative sessions. That’s one reason we worked with State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (who sponsored the bills) to get this Study Committee established. If there is specific opposition, we’d like to be able to address it directly. That’s why our goal with the committee hearings is to engage everyone in conversation about the issue. Like many things, it’s an education process.
Q: Since 2002, you’ve received more than 3,000 requests for assistance, and taken on sixteen Georgia clients. How have you prioritized whom you’ll take and whom you won’t take? And are there more people who have legitimate claims of innocence than you can take on? Please explain.
A: Right now, the Georgia Innocence Project, being a very small organization, takes only those cases where DNA testing could prove innocence. We do post-conviction work only, so if a defendant is still going through the judicial system, we can’t take his or her case.
When we do find a compelling claim for innocence in which DNA testing could prove it, we have to find the DNA evidence from the crime scene. Sadly, this stalls many investigations in their tracks. The cases are so old that the DNA has been destroyed. We don’t take anyone on as a client until we find that DNA, thus the small number.
We are doing well keeping up with investigations. We always answer an inquiry within nintey days. Obviously, with more resources, we could work even more efficiently.
Q: You are starting to seek clients in Alabama. What kind of response have you gotten thus far?
A: We put word into Alabama prisons in late July that we were taking cases there. We also alerted all the law schools in Alabama and have since made visits to all of them. We’ve already gotten nearly 150 requests from Alabama prisoners for our assistance; those cases are now all in process.
Q: What are your five and ten-year goals for the Georgia Innocence Project?
A: If we stick to only DNA-related cases, we hope to be out of business in ten years! Fortunately, DNA testing is now a regular part of criminal investigation, so we will never have a 2007 case. However, there are scientific developments every day that might bring new avenues of correcting errors by the justice system.
Q: On a personal note: your work has helped exonerate three men in Georgia. What did it feel like upon winning their freedom?
A: I can’t really describe it. It’s certainly the most amazing thing I’ve been part of in my twenty years of practicing law.
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