Latest DNA Exoneree Another Case of Mistaken Identity

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(APN) ATLANTA — The Georgia House Study Committee on Eyewitness Identification Procedure met for the final time December 13, 2007, to settle the details of draft legislation outlining minimum standards for eyewitness identification procedure.

The Committee heard testimony from the Georgia Innocence Project (GIP), whose recent work helped exonerate John Jerome White, a man sentenced to life in prison for a 1979 rape in Meriwether County when he was just 20 years old.

DNA tests conducted by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) cleared White on December 10, 2007, and implicated a new suspect, James Edward Parham, who is now under investigation.

The big twist: Parham stood to White’s left in a photo lineup presented to the victim on September 29, 1979.

White, fresh out of prison, appeared before the Committee and told Members he supports their efforts to pass legislation detailing careful protocols all law enforcement officials should bide by when collecting eyewitness identification evidence.

“I’m happy to be out,” White, now 48, told the Committee. “I will assist in any way I can.”

White has maintained since his arrest that he was the wrong man. “I told the Judge I didn’t do it. I really had confidence in the criminal justice system.”

But the victim, a 74-year old woman, picked White out of the September 29, 1979, photo lineup, nearly six weeks after the attack, saying she was “almost positive” White was the one.

According to a report compiled by GIP, the victim testified at trial that during the attack the only light came from a closet light in an adjacent room.

In addition, she testified that though she had been prescribed corrective eyeglasses, not only was she not wearing them during the attack, she never wore them at all.

White, represented at the trial by now-US Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Atlanta), never took the stand to speak for his own defense.

He served 10 years before being released on parole in 1990 but found it difficult to adjust. “I was raised on the chain gang, and I didn’t know how to make my way once I got out,” White told GIP.

He spent two and a half years in prison after a 1993 drug possession conviction and received a seven-year sentence for robbery in 1997.

These convictions led to White’s probation revocation and he was forced to serve the remainder of his life sentence.

Meanwhile, Parham roamed free, raping another Meriwether County woman in 1985.

“I am not convinced that there are not departments that are doing the exact same procedures that led to this,” Aimee Maxwell, Executive Director of GIP, told the Committee.

“There is a cost to society to leave somebody [who is innocent] in jail, and an actual dollar cost to the State,” she added.

Robert Clark, who spent 24 years in jail for a rape he did not commit, received $1.2 million from the State of Georgia in May 2007 after DNA evidence cleared his name in 2005.

“How many more innocent people do we have to make payments to?” State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Decatur), Committee Chair, asked.

She argues the estimated $20,000 to $40,000 cost for training and implementing the proposed written procedures is a small price, not only to prevent another multimillion-dollar payout, but also to help keep innocent people out of jail.

However, Benfield did tell White she is still willing to support legislation that would provide him compensation.

The Committee is working to secure private money to fund training and implementation. Benfield feels confident that “this is our year to pass something.”

White’s release now makes him the seventh DNA exoneree from Georgia and number 210 nationwide. Of the 210, 75 percent were convicted because of mistaken identity.

Maxwell lamented others will continue to follow in White’s unfortunate footsteps until there are proper written procedures for collecting eyewitness identification evidence.

“I suspect this month there will be people wrongly going to prison,” she said. “We leave the right person on the street to hurt someone else.”

The proposed legislation says that by July 1, 2011, all law enforcement officials conducting photo or live lineups must have successfully completed eyewitness identification training.

Moreover, any law enforcement agency that does not have written eyewitness identification procedures by January 1, 2009, could lose state or state-administered federal funding.

In the meantime, GIP’s Life After Exoneration program will help White rebuild his life. For now, he is content to spend some time with his family whom he said “stood by me through the whole thing.”

About the author:

Jonathan Springston is a Senior Staff Writer for Atlanta Progressive News and may be reached at jonathan@atlantaprogressivenews.com

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