This is All Things Considered on NHPR. I'm Peter Biello. A bill under consideration at the New Hampshire State House would require certain law enforcement agencies to adopt a written policy regarding eyewitness identification procedures.
This is to prevent the conviction of innocent people based on faulty testimony. Among those speaking in favor of the bill at a hearing today, was Dennis Maher. The 57-year-old from Tewksbury, Mass., spent nearly two decades in prison after being falsely accused of rape. Dennis is in the studio with me now. Thank you very much for being here.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.)
So tell me about what happened.
Well, it started out when I was 17. I graduated from high school. I went into the military and went through basic training in Missouri - went to Georgia and went to jump school became a paratrooper, was stationed at North Carolina. And I volunteered to go overseas. While overseas I reenlisted to come back to Massachusetts and be stationed at Fort Devons. So on the night of November 17th, 1983, I was walking down the street and I was stopped by the police. They asked me for identification. I gave him my I.D.. I had no priors. Not even a speeding ticket. Then they searched me and arrested me for possession of marijuana. Took me to the police station and started interrogating me, asking me where I was on the night of November 16th. I told him, well, I didn't leave Fort Devons till quarter past 5:00 I didn't get home till quarter of 6:00. And then they questioned me where were you on the night of November 17. I said while I got out of work early to get my car inspected and I went home and then I was going to my friend's house and they put me back in a holding cell. A couple of hours later they start questioning me about the same thing. I gave him the same answers and I got frustrated and said well what are you questioning me about. And they said well we're questioning you about a rape and an attempted rape that happened on the nights of November 16th and 17th.
I said, well, I think I need a lawyer. The next day they took me into court and they did what's called an in-court identification.
What is that?
Well, they sat me on a bench and they brought one of the victims in and then let her walk around the courtroom to see if she could I.D. somebody and she did someone else. So the judge gave me six months probation and said you could leave. As I'm leaving, they arrest me and charge me with the crimes that the judge said they had no grounds to go forward. And so I was arrested and brought to the Lowell police station. Then I was put on $10,000 bail which is a thousand dollars cash, and went home. A few weeks later I went for a lineup. It was me and six police officers. I was standing behind a chair and all the other ones were standing behind a railing. I was ID'd. Then I had another line up, I think a week or two later, which I don't really remember but same process. Then on the night of January 5th, 1984, the police came back to my house again and arrested me. So they brought me into court and they put me on $50,000 cash bail. So January 5th, 1984, was my last day of freedom.
And so you went to prison eventually for the aggravated assault charge, was it?
Aggravated rape - and you were identified based on faulty eyewitness accounts.
What do you think happened there?
The woman was shown ten pictures and she said, well, none of them match. And our arresting officer said, well, this one you had a reaction to -- pointing to my picture. She said well it must have been him.
Since then you've learned a little bit about why that might not be the best approach. Why wouldn't that be a good way to go about it?
Well because it's suggestiveness. She suggested to the victim that this was the person who committed the crime. The way that they want to change it, where I've spoken in numerous states around the country, is taking the arresting officer out so that they know nothing about the crime, showing the victim pictures individually instead of in a large group, where if the victim doesn't I.D. anyone, it doesn't matter because you know you're not IDing the wrong person you know because if someone is wrongly ID'd, they can go to prison for a long time. I did 19 years, two months and 29 days. You know there's people who have done more than me.
How did you eventually get exonerated?
Through the use of DNA.
What is it about New Hampshire's laws regarding witness identification that you think need improving?
They're antiquated. A lot of the country is changing to this new style of identification. It's called a double-blind system. You know, that takes the fault out of it. Where if it was the IDing officer, they can't use suggestiveness or anything like that. Where if it's someone who doesn't know anything about the case, they're just showing pictures.
So what do you think - what meaningful change do you think would happen if this House bill in New Hampshire becomes law?
It takes out the chances of wrongful -- it cuts down on the chances of wrongful conviction you know, because the victim would not be forced to identify someone. if it's the arresting officer and they're shown a big stack of pictures, you know, and if she ID's the wrong person there could be a reaction from the police officer or something like that. It's not a reaction he means to make but it could be just an involuntary reaction, where it would cut down on the likelihood of a wrongful conviction, which is what we all want to see.
Well Dennis, thank you very much for coming in and sharing your story.
That's Dennis Mayer. He testified today before state lawmakers in support of a bill that would require certain law enforcement agencies to change the way they have witnesses identify alleged criminals.