Eyewitness ID to Be Studied; Overturned Convictions Prompt Lawmakers to Examine Issue

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Byline: VICKY ECKENRODE

ATLANTA - State lawmakers concerned about people wrongly sent to prison because of inaccurate witness testimonies plan to examine the issue in depth with defense attorneys, law enforcement agencies and researchers.

The first of five study committees about eyewitness identification is scheduled for Monday morning at the Capitol.

All six Georgia men, including two from Savannah, who have been exonerated after DNA evidence proved their innocence, have been invited to attend and speak to legislators.

"Every single one of those original convictions was based on faulty identifications," said Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Atlanta, chairman of the committee.

Douglas Echols and Samuel Scott were convicted in Chatham County in 1987 for kidnapping and raping a woman, who identified both men. They were released in 2001 when DNA evidence cleared them.

The pending death-penalty appeal for Savannah's Troy Anthony Davis, a convicted cop killer, also is expected to be discussed as part of the meetings. Because there was no physical evidence found in his case, his trial depended largely on witness statements.

Because six of the nine witnesses who testified against him have since recanted, Davis' lawyers are trying to push for a new trial.

Benfield, a former public defender, has been researching eyewitness identification and successfully pushed bills for the state to compensate some of the wrongly accused men.

She introduced legislation this year to tighten requirements for using witnesses to identify suspects, but it stalled out over several concerns about expenses for police departments and the increased difficulty prosecutors would have using witnesses at trials.

Also in dispute are some of the studies' results and the effectiveness of changing witness-questioning procedures.

"What I'd like to see come out of this study committee is a pilot project in Georgia where we could select three law enforcement agencies of varying sizes and test procedures for a year," Benfield said. …