OKLAHOMA CITY - It's been 20 years since Timothy Durham sat in a prison cell, but sometimes he still struggles to feel completely free.
"This is something I still have to deal with on a daily basis," he said. "I’m free and I can walk around, but I’ll never get that time back."
He'll never get back four years of his life that he feels he wasted in custody, wrongly convicted for a robbery and rape of an 11-year-old girl.
A judge sentenced him to more than 3,000 years in prison.
"It really was my worst nightmare," he said. "And, when you are convicted of crimes against a child, sex crimes are the lowest of the low in prison. Sex crimes against a child are even lower."
His conviction, he feels, is rooted in mistakes made by police and supposed eyewitnesses who tied him to a crime he did not commit.
"Eyewitness identification can be influenced by so many factors, including procedures by law enforcement," Durham told NewsChannel 4 Monday. "There are some very, very simple procedures that can prevent mistakes."
Durham and others gathered for a study at the capitol Monday, focused on changing those procedures to avoid wrongful convictions.
In one of three cases, according to the Oklahoma Innocence Project, the seeds of those convictions are sewn when police ask witnesses or victims to identify the perpetrator, whether in a police lineup or elsewhere.
"A lot of it is just the trauma of the event," said OIP Executive Director Vicki Behenna, noting witnesses may see something from a great distance or in difficult lighting. "If law enforcement runs with an identification and doesn’t do the work on the back end to corroborate that identification, that’s what leads to wrongful convictions I think."
Behenna said there are four key best practices police departments across the state should implement:
- Ensure there is a "blind administrator" presenting the lineup or photos, meaning the administrator doesn't know if a suspect is present.
- Instruct the witness the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup.
- Use "fillers" in the lineup that match the perpetrator's description.
- Obtain an "Eyewitness Coincidence Statement" that says the witness is at least 90 percent sure his or her choice committed the crime.
"We need to make sure, if it was your family member that was accused of a crime based on eyewitness identification and you knew your family member wasn’t involved, you would certainly want these other safeguards in play to make sure that this person that’s your loved one wasn’t wrongfully convicted," she said.
Several people told lawmakers Monday about how wrongful convictions affected them.
The cousin of a murder victim told the senate committee how a wrongful conviction gave her family feelings of guilt and shame, especially knowing the murderer was still at large.
Taxpayers could also suffer after lawsuits for wrongful convictions.
Oklahoma has spent more than $1.3 million settling with people who were not supposed to be imprisoned.
Cities and counties have spent even more.
Behenna wants to see lawmakers craft a bill that would require police departments to undergo new training and write new policies to address the problem.
Oklahoma City Police Chief Bill Citty told lawmakers his department implemented changes in 2013 and said he has not heard complaints from detectives about the new procedures slowing down the system.
"Law enforcement really has the responsibility to make sure the processes are in place," he said. "We can’t put that on a witness or a victim."
Larger departments are adopting newer policies, Citty said, because they have the resources to do so.
Smaller departments may lag behind.
But, he agrees law enforcement only stands to benefit from change.
"The general population says ‘the victim says it was that person, it doesn’t get any better than that’ and I think law enforcement really had that same attitude for years," he said. "If you’re Caucasian and you have a person of color that’s the suspect [for example], it’s much more difficult to identify that person because you’re not aware of the features on a regular basis and there’s a real chance of misidentifying somebody in a lot of those cases."
Said Citty: "When you’re sending people to prison, sending them to prison and taking away their freedom, that’s about as high as a stake can get."