Timothy Durham was living in Tulsa and working at his family’s business in 1993, when his life was turned upside down.
An 11-year-old girl was raped, and Durham’s photograph was placed in a lineup, even though he didn't match the victim’s description of the assailant. The officer conducting the procedure told the victim that Durham had been in prison before — not true — and not surprisingly, she identified him as the culprit. He was found guilty and sentenced to more than 3,000 years in prison.
Four years later, DNA testing proved Durham was innocent and pointed to a convicted rapist named Jess Garrison. However, the victim would never get justice because by the time the truth was revealed Garrison had committed suicide.
Since 1989, 11 innocent Oklahomans have been wrongfully convicted based on eyewitness misidentification. Another five were imprisoned for crimes they didn't commit, based on false confessions. The innocent people in these cases cumulatively spent 160 years in prison, and taxpayers were left to cover over $28 million in compensation and civil lawsuits stemming from their wrongful convictions.
This month, the Legislature took major steps to prevent these injustices from happening again. Sens. Julie Daniels, R-Bartlesville and Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, and Rep. Chris Kannady, D-Oklahoma City, championed Senate Bill 798 and Senate Bill 636, which will implement statewide law enforcement best practices for protecting against wrongful convictions.
The new law requires the use of evidence-based eyewitness identification procedures. An independent or “blind” administrator, who does not know the identity of the suspect, must conduct lineups, or if that is impractical a “blinded” technique must be used to prevent suggestiveness. In addition, the non-suspect “fillers” in the lineup must match the witness’s description of the perpetrator, witnesses must be instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be present, and there must be documentation of the witness’s level of certainty after making an identification.
The new laws require recording of suspect interrogations for the most serious crimes. This practice deters against coercive questioning that can lead to a false confession, protects officers against frivolous claims of misconduct, and provides irrefutable evidence of what was said and done during the interrogation.
With these new laws, Oklahoma is now the 24th state to adopt eyewitness identification best practices, and the 25th to require recording of suspect interrogations. Many law enforcement agencies have already implemented these reforms and the Oklahoma Police Chiefs Association has offered training. The new law is an important next step because it guarantees the consistent use of best practices throughout the state, so justice doesn't depend on which jurisdiction an Oklahoman lives.
Thanks to the leadership of state lawmakers, innocent Oklahomans will be protected from the nightmare that Timothy Durham and his family endured.