ATLANTA - Calvin Johnson Jr. told lawmakers Monday that his life changed when a rape victim pointed to him in court as her attacker.
"At that point, I became the victim. The identification resulted in me spending 16 years in prison for a crime I didn't (commit)," said Mr. Johnson, who was convicted in 1983 in Clayton County and eventually exonerated through DNA evidence.
Mr. Johnson and two other former inmates imprisoned and cleared once DNA testing became common attended a legislative hearing where the first of several discussions will be held about eyewitness identification procedures in the state.
Two Chatham County men wrongly identified in a rape did not appear, but a former Louisiana exoneree, who spent time on death row, also talked to the committee, which is planning four meetings on the topic.
Mr. Johnson, the first man in Georgia to be released by DNA evidence, said that during the initial investigation there were conflicting statements and his hair samples did not match up with the attacker. None of that stacked up against witness statements during the trial in Clayton County.
"We have a responsibility here today to look at this and make a change," he said.
Most law enforcement agencies in Georgia do not have written policies in place about how to take witness statements during investigations, advocates said to the committee.
The nonprofit legal group Georgia Innocence Project reported that in June it surveyed every police department and sheriff's office in the state. Only 17 percent of the nearly 300 agencies that responded said they have an official procedure for interviewing eyewitnesses when looking through suspect photos or conducting a lineup process.
"I was amazed how many didn't have eyewitness procedures," said Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield, D-Atlanta, and chairwoman of the study committee. "We're going to look at ways hopefully that we can improve."
Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, questioned whether more agencies do not adopt formal policies about witness identification because it could give defense attorneys reasons to try to get cases against their clients thrown out.
"It's very important to me that we find a best practice that we can embrace in the state and make it uniform," he said.
But he said the requirements should not add procedural roadblocks for agencies or unintentionally help release guilty criminals.
"If we can find a way to strike a balance there, I think we can advance this cause," Mr. Setzler said.
Eyewitness identification is attracting more study across the country, with judicial experts and researchers trying to figure out how victims and witnesses remember details of a crime and how those memories can be affected throughout a case.
"Only a handful of cases have DNA at the crime scene," said Aimee Maxwell, the director of the Georgia Innocence Project. "More cases have eyewitnesses."
In 2002, North Carolina formed a commission to make recommendations for cutting down on wrongful convictions that led to eyewitness identification reforms the Legislature passed this summer.
The changes include not having the officer conducting a lineup know who the suspect is, separating witnesses and video recording the process.
"Misidentification is usually where the investigation starts, and it can take the case down a misleading road," said Chris Mumma, the executive director for the N.C. Actual Innocence Commission who spearheaded the reform effort while working for the state's chief justice.
She said many prosecutors and law enforcement officials backed the project.
"Studying these issues is completely about getting the right perpetrator," Ms. Mumma said at the hearing.
Future study committee meetings are expected to bring up concerns from attorneys about the impact new guidelines would have in prosecutions and police representatives about training issues.
Dale Mann, the director of the Georgia Public Safety Training Council, spoke Monday because he will not be able to attend the next hearing Oct. 1 with a law enforcement focus.
He said any changes would better be handled through law enforcement certification officials.
"I'm a little bit wary of us writing a statutory prescription for this when there's hundreds of other (police procedures) done on a routine basis that we don't have a statutory language on," he said.