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DA must approve some arrests based on eyewitness identification

| Thursday, July 24, 2014, 4:01 p.m.

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. sent a letter to city officials this week that says Pittsburgh police must get approval from his office to issue a felony arrest warrant that relies on an eyewitness who doesn't know the suspect.

Unless the department adopts Allegheny County Chiefs of Police Association procedures for eyewitness identification by Aug. 16, information from eyewitnesses may be used to establish a suspect “but may not be considered in and of itself for charging purposes,” Zappala said.

The letter was sent on Tuesday to city Solicitor Lourdes Sanchez Ridge and Stephen A. Bucar, acting director of the city's public safety department. They did not return calls.

Tim McNulty, a spokesman for Mayor Bill Peduto, said Sanchez Ridge was reviewing the letter. Sonya Toler, a public safety department spokeswoman, said the department would adopt the procedures when they are finalized.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the DA's office, said a similar letter will go to county police soon unless they, too, adopt the procedures, which include how to conduct photo arrays.

Two months ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that experts can testify about the reliability of eyewitness identification as long as a trial court deems the expert relevant to the case. Such testimony was forbidden in Pennsylvania for two decades.

“Twenty years of advances in scientific study have strongly suggested that eyewitnesses are apt to erroneously identify a person as a perpetrator of a crime when certain factors are present,” state Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd wrote in the court's majority opinion. “Eyewitness identification can be extremely powerful testimony ... yet, its limits often are not understood by jurors.”

Downtown attorney Patrick Nightingale said he supports Zappala's move.

“The role of the police and DA's office is not simply to make arrests. It is to solve crimes,” Nightingale said.

Nightingale represented DeAndre Brown, an East Liberty man who served nearly a month in jail because he was accused — erroneously — of robbing Dana's Bakery in Homewood at gunpoint in September.

The bakery's owner identified Brown in a photo array, but prosecutors dropped charges when Nightingale provided officers with security camera footage that showed Brown was in the Carnegie Library's Oakland branch attending a training seminar at the time of the robbery. Brown has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit.

“If only there was some additional oversight (of Brown's arrest), that would have resulted in my client not being arrested,” Nightingale said.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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