Jee Park 071519

Jee Park, executive director of Innocence Project New Orleans, address the Press Club of Baton Rouge on Monday, July 15, 2019.

Nearly all of Louisiana’s law enforcement agencies are not in compliance with a new law trumpeted by police and advocates as the best way to decrease the number of people wrongfully convicted by faulty eyewitness testimony.

A lot training has taken place, and law enforcement officials think detectives are following the procedures outlined in the 2018 law despite not technically complying with the law.

For the most part, police accept scientific studies that show eyewitness testimony is fraught with problems from mistaken identities to subtle influences that has led to many being sent to prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Fifteen of 16 Louisiana convictions based on eyewitness testimony have been overturned since 1991 when DNA evidence pointed the finger of guilt at someone else, according to the Innocence Project New Orleans. Another 13 convicted inmates were exonerated during that time period because the eyewitnesses were found to be incorrect.

Archie Williams, for instance, was exonerated March 23 after 36 years in prison for a 1983 rape conviction based solely on the victim’s identification of him in a photo array. At the time, she voiced doubts about her identification but by the time of trial was sure, after working with investigators and prosecutors. Advanced technology in 2019 found the fingerprints of a serial rapist in the victim’s home. Williams was freed from prison.

The new “Eyewitness Identification Reform” law requires protocols, such as, ensuring the officer presenting a photo array of suspects to the witness doesn’t know who is suspected, proper instructions to the witnesses, and recording the witness interviews.

And to ensure compliance, the new law required each of the state’s 450 agencies that conduct criminal investigations to submit a copy of their reformed procedures to the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice by March 1, 2019.

Four and half months have passed since the deadline and only 34 agencies have filed the paperwork. Twelve municipal police department have filed, including Lafayette, but the two largest departments, Baton Rouge and New Orleans, have not. Twenty sheriff’s departments have filed.

It's probably more an oversight than rebellion.

For instance, when asked about East Baton Rouge Parish’s failure to send a copy, the sheriff’s office responded that a copy of the new procedures would be sent immediately. Casey Rayborn Hicks, the sheriff’s spokeswoman, added that department’s detectives and deputies already follow the new protocols. NOPD is submitting theirs on Monday.

“All the parties came together on the bill, really, because most of the agencies were doing something very akin to what was being proposed in the statute,” said Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorneys’ Association. “When I was chief of police in Alexandria, we had adopted a policy that was very similar.”

Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre, who helped draft the law, agreed that law enforcement was on board and enthusiastic, though a few aspects of the reform have proven thorny – like a small town department with only two or three detectives finding an officer not familiar with the case to present the photo array. 

Louisiana has 300 municipal departments, 63 sheriffs that do investigations, plus a number state, university and other agencies staffed with certified law enforcement officers.

“The newness of that requirement is more likely the reason, than that they’re not going to comply or are refusing to comply or are scared of the law,” Webre said. His department filed the required paperwork on Jan. 15.

But, he said, of the dozens of changes in criminal laws the Legislature makes every session, almost none come with a requirement that compliance documents have to be mailed somewhere. “I understand why the Legislature was looking for assurances of compliance,” he said, but overworked officers could easily overlook a requirement outside the routine.

“That’s not an excuse, it’s more of a reason why,” Webre said, acknowledging that as sticklers for following rules, law enforcement wouldn’t accept “oops” as answer from members of the public.

Jee Park, executive director of the Innocence Project New Orleans, said she’s inclined to give the cops a pass on this one. The associations representing law enforcement agencies around the state have been holding seminars and classes on the new procedures. The Louisiana Sheriff’s Association drafted model procedures that executive director Michael Ranatza said the sheriffs in all 64 parishes had voted unanimously to adopt.

The law only requires the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement to collect the written policies. There’s no enforcement language in the law.

And not following the reform policies doesn’t lead to automatic reversal of any conviction.

Park and Lampert say the protocols will come up before trial when prosecutors and defendants argue whether to allow an eyewitness to testify during trial. Judges can decide if jurors should hear based on whether the eyewitness’s information was properly collected by investigators.

12 Police Departments have filed an Eyewitness Identification Procedure Policy

  • Breaux Bridge
  • Broussard
  • Carencro
  • Denham Springs
  • DeRidder
  • Gretna
  • Lafayette
  • Lake Charles
  • Livonia
  • Ponchatoula
  • Shreveport
  • Westlake

20 Sheriff’s Departments have filed an Eyewitness Identification Procedure Policy

  • Assumption Parish
  • Bienville Parish
  • Caddo Parish
  • East Feliciana Parish
  • Grant Parish
  • Iberville Parish
  • Jackson Parish
  • Jefferson Parish
  • Lafourche Parish
  • LaSalle Parish
  • Livingston Parish
  • Pointe Coupee Parish
  • Rapides Parish
  • St. Charles Parish
  • St. James Parish
  • St. John the Baptist Parish
  • St. Landry Parish
  • Tangipahoa Parish
  • Terrebonne Parish
  • Union Parish

2 Other law enforcement agencies have filed an Eyewitness Identification Procedure Policy

  • Louisiana Association of Chiefs of Police
  • Louisiana Secretary of State

Source: Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Criminal Justice

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.