Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | March 14, 2009

Don’t believe your eyes

Slate and Newsweek columnist Dahlia Lithwick uses the case of Texan Timothy Cole, who was recently cleared by DNA evidence of a 1986 rape conviction that was based on eyewitness testimony, to remind us that eyewitness testimony is exceedingly suspect. Key quote:

A study published last month by Gary Wells and Deah Quinlivan in Law and Human Behavior, the journal of the American Psychology-Law Society, reveals just how often those injustices occur: Of the more than 230 people in the United States who were wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence, approximately 77 percent involved cases of mistaken eyewitness identification, more than any other single factor.

Wells has been studying mistaken identifications for decades, and his objection to the eyewitness identification system is not that people make mistakes. In an interview he explains that eyewitness evidence is important but should be treated—like blood, fingerprints, and fiber evidence—as trace evidence, subject to contamination, deterioration, and corruption. [emphasis mine]

It’s a problem that I’ve written about before and one that the Innocent Project’s work highlights with sickening frequency.

It’s time to reform the way the criminal justice system gathers and treats eyewitness testimony . We’ll reduce the number of innocent people sent away for decades, or worse, put to death, and  reduce the number of times we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve nailed the right person while the guilty party remains free.


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