Twenty innocent men spent almost 170 years in prison in Georgia for crimes they did not commit. What does eight years mean to you? For these twenty innocent Georgians, eight years is the average length of time each spent behind bars for a crime they did not commit. Just as it is true in exonerations nationwide, mistaken eyewitness identification is the leading cause of Georgia's wrongful convictions.
Clearly, mistaken eyewitness identification is problem in Georgia. Eyewitness evidence, much like physical evidence, is highly subject to contamination and must be collected carefully according to scientific protocols. Without clear, written policies and procedures that instruct law enforcement agencies on the best practices for photo and live lineups, mistakes will continue to be made. And lives will continue to be destroyed.
In 2008 the Georgia state legislature did adopt a resolution that recommended that law enforcement agencies develop written eyewitness identification policies. Unfortunately, the lack of a statutory requirement means that there is still a wide range of practices in Georgia.
A new report published by The Justice Project, Convicting the Innocent in Georgia: Stories of Injustice and the Reforms that Can Prevent Them, highlights thirteen cases of wrongful conviction in Georgia that caused twenty men to collectively spend nearly 170 years in prison. By studying their exonerations and detailing the reoccurring problems that lead to wrongful convictions, the report identifies specific, practical reforms to increase the fairness, accuracy, and reliability in Georgia's criminal justice system.
Robert Clark spent twenty four years in prison after he was falsely convicted of rape, kidnapping, and armed robbery. Calvin Johnson became the first DNA exoneree in Georgia in 1999 after spending sixteen years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Jerry Banks spent six years on death row as a result of inadequate legal representation and prosecutorial misconduct. While the events that have led to the tragedies of these stories cannot be changed, Georgia can implement reforms that will help prevent such tragedies and improve the fairness and accuracy of its criminal justice system.
It is time for Georgia to take the necessary steps to prevent these errors from occurring in the future. The people of Georgia deserve it.
John F. Terzano is President of The Justice Project, a nonpartisan organization that works to increase fairness and accuracy in the criminal justice system.
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