Civil rights advocates are taking a long hard look at how the Denver Police Department routinely handles reporting of witness descriptions of criminal suspects. If they can make a case, they say they plan to launch a lawsuit, the outcome of which has some legal experts surmising that many criminal court convictions might need to be reexamined.
At issue is the claim by many a criminal defense attorney that original witness descriptions often get overwritten in police computer records to reflect only the descriptions of the eventual suspects arrested. The result is that the records that prosecutors and defense attorneys take to court fail to show the actual facts of how an investigation proceeded. When that happens, it raises legitimate questions about whether defendants have been granted due process.
The apparent inconsistencies in the system came to light during the trial of a man on burglary charges in Arapahoe County in December. During the trial, prosecutors attempted to tie the defendant to a previous case based on a witness's description. As it turned out, that specific record had been lost from the original police report. It apparently had been overwritten and a detective in the case testified that was common practice.
The defense successfully argued that the original description proved to be at such odds with how the defendant really looks that it could have been used to indicate his innocence. The result was the declaration of a mistrial. But it's also sparked claims from defense attorneys who say that the system is being purposely manipulated by police.
Police officials deny that. They say there are problems with the system, but they say it's a matter of training, not the result of any intentional mishandling. To remedy the situation, they are promising to conduct a department-wide refresher for officers on how to take and safeguard the integrity of those statements.
Meanwhile, at least one prominent civil rights attorney says he doubts it's a matter of training. And he says if he finds he's right, he'll mount a court battle.
Source: The Denver Post, "Denver police's witness-description computer system under fire," By Jessica Fender, Feb. 15, 2012