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article imageWitness Error and ‘Lying Eyes’ Cause Most Wrongful Convictions

By Carol Forsloff     Aug 9, 2009 in Crime
As folks who stand at the bar of justice wait for honest decisions, sometimes the balance is swayed by witness error. Experts maintain it’s a major cause of wrongful convictions, and innocent people languishing in jail for years. How does it happen?
Various research studies have indicated that witnesses err when making judgments about crimes. It has been found that in 75 percent of cases overturned by DNA testing, it was found eyewitness accounts were wrong, according to the Innocence Project.
Research conducted at Pennsylvania University by Mary Beth Oliver, a media studies professor found people often get details wrong when race is a factor. She examined viewer’s memory of black and white criminal suspects in a newcast. When these viewers watched a news story with both black and white suspects, then given a wanted poster of either an African American or white suspect, they later more often identified the African Americans as the ones guilty.
“Over time,” Oliver wrote in a report published in the Journal of Communications, “participants who had seen the Caucasian suspect in the news story were increasingly likely mistakenly to identify African-Americans. In addition, endorsement of anti-black attitudes was associated with decreases in misidentification of Caucasian photographs and increases in misidentification of African-American photographs.”
That type of wrong eyewitness testimony has led to wrong convictions, as in the case of someone discussed in the article about the Penn State research. A man by the name of Ronald Cotton spent 11 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, having been picked out of a lineup by victims, one ambivalent but persuaded by the earlier identification. Both of these witnesses misidentified Cotton, which led to his sentence. He was found guilty even though physical evidence at the scene indicated another man may have committed the crime. That other man, Bobby Poole, eventually confessed to both rapes.
A review of 53 cases of wrongful convictions in New York State revealed the following to be the paramount causes, according to a study presented by the New York Bar Association. These were the causes found:
• Government Practices: one or more general errors by a government actor (a prosecutor,member of law enforcement, or judge).
• Identification Procedures: the misidentification of the accused by the victim and/or one
or more eyewitnesses.
• Mishandling of Forensic Evidence: errors in the handling or preservation of key forensic evidence and/or the failure to use DNA testing.
• Use of False Confessions: the extraction and use of what turned out to be a false
confession by the accused
There have been 241 wrongful convictions in the United States according to the Innocence Project. This is the breakdown according to race:
143 African Americans
70 Caucasians
21 Latinos
2 Asian American
5 whose race is unknown
Only about half of those wrongfully convicted have been financially compensated, although 27 states are presently working on this issue. Still it is telling that given the information about wrong eyewitness accounts, specifically about African Americans when compared to white suspects, the large number of African American convictions certainly shows race to be an issue in the criminal justice system, with an imbalance in how justice is meted out, sometimes wrongfully.
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