ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Justice Department officials and several police chiefs released recommendations Tuesday for law enforcement agencies to change investigative procedures to prevent wrongful convictions.
Although there is no way of knowing how many people are wrongfully convicted each year, the officials noted that the National Registry of Exonerations tallies 1,135 exonerations from 1989 to 2012.
The report, co-produced by the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs, calls for several investigative reforms to prevent wrongful arrests from occurring in the first place.
The report calls for greater scrutiny of eyewitness identifications and stronger supervision of police interviews with suspects to avoid misidentifications and false confessions.
Recording police interviews with suspects can help ensure that suspects do not make confessions under coercion.
For example, Mark Clements was convicted of arson and four counts of murder in 1982 after he confessed to Chicago police. But in 2009, Clements' sentence was vacated when court documents showed that details in his confession did not match the facts of the crime. Only 16 at the time of his arrest, he was physically intimidated by police into making a confession, Clements said, in an interview from his home in the Chicago suburbs.
The report released Tuesday states: "At minimum, law enforcement agencies should record audio of all interviews involving major crimes."
But the Justice Department is not necessarily going to require its own law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, to follow these standards and record audio of interviews.
Assistant Attorney General Karol Mason, director of the Office of Justice Programs, said that her office has no authority over the federal agencies. "Our mission is to help our state, local and tribal partners on these issues," she said.
Joining the federal and local officials in unveiling these recommendations was Marvin Anderson, who spent 15 years in prison for a rape he did not commit before being exonerated in 2002. "As a child, you grow up to believe, to trust in our justice system. All of that was taken away from me," Anderson said. "With this report you are telling me, and society as a whole, that you see there is work to be done. This is a beginning."
Anderson, who was released after DNA testing proved his innocence, now serves as a board member on The Innocence Project, a non-profit organization that works to overturn wrongful convictions.
Another recommendation is to use science to bolster investigations. "Tunnel vision" can cause investigators to ignore evidence that proves innocence, said Gregory Ridgeway, acting director of the National Institute of Justice, the "science wing" of the Justice Department.
"So if we know exculpatory evidence can show up at any time during the process, where does it really show up? Is it in fingerprint examination? Is it in witness ID? Where can we find opportunities to do a double-blind check on that evidence?"
Walter McNeil, chief of police in Quincy, Fla., said the report is "merely a document. It now has to live, and to bring life to this document will require leadership from police chiefs and police leaders all across our nation," McNeil said.
The police association will be doing outreach to get other law enforcement leaders on board with the recommendations and is in the process of creating standards for audio and video recording of suspect interviews.