Monday, August 11, 2008

Eyewitness Misidentification

From the AP:

Now victim [Jennifer Thompson-Cannino] and the innocent man [Ronald Cotton] she helped convict are writing a book together.

Thompson-Cannino, who is white, had mistakenly picked out one black man; another was guilty of the crime.

"Between the composite sketch and the photo identification, I had messed it up," she said, recalling the 1984 rape and its aftermath. "By the time I got to the physical lineup, Ron Cotton had become my attacker and that was that."

What I like about this article is that while it leads off with a dicussion of a rape case, it doesn't fall into the trap of ignoring misidentifications in non-rape cases. Too often the impression stories about misidentification can leave is that rape victims are inherently less reliable than victims of other crimes.

In crimes where there is no DNA evidence or where there is no expectation of DNA evidence, convictions based on misidentification aren't likely to be highlighted by exonerations. This in turn can have people stating that convictions for these types of crimes are more reliable than convictions in rape cases when the relative accuracy of identification is unknown.

The relative accuracy of convictions between rape cases and other crimes is also impacted by attitides about rape cases when identification is not an issue. Attitudes which reduce sexual assault by a non-stranger to a misunderstanding or which dismiss victim testimony based on bigotry against the victim (she seems like a consenting sort of woman) reduce the number of rightful convictions and skew rape convictions so that identification becomes a greater issue than it is in the reality of the crime.

Many times when people talk about injustice, they are only talking about wrongful convictions and completely ignore criminals who escape justice.

Some criminal justice experts believe that mistakes are so pervasive that nothing short of wholesale reforms in identification procedures will fix the problem.

This year, North Carolina became the first state to standardize identification procedures. That includes preventing the police officer who is investigating the crime from conducting photo identifications with witnesses and requiring that lineup photographs be shown one after another rather than in groups of six.

I believe that systemic changes are needed so that there are standardized processes in place to protect innocent suspects and to protect those who are involved in correct identifications and untainted identification processes.

This story includes a suggestion to inform jurors about identification issues, but I'm opposed to that since that is a bad substitute for implimenting best practices when it comes to identification and could make a good id process seem less reliable than it really is.

For anyone who supports an overhaul, they also need to support fully funding that overhaul if they are committed to reducing incorrect identifications. Demanding a change while resisting paying for it shows that money is more important than justice.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 7:47 AM   2 comments links to this post


At August 11, 2008 6:26 PM, Blogger Jeff Deutsch said...

Hello Marcella,

Hear, hear!

Kudos to you for pointing out false identifications and other false accusations, and some of the reasons for them.

As you might know, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled just last year that for any jury trial in New Jersey featuring eyewitness testimony, the judge has to remind the jury that eyewitnesses can be sincere and telling the truth as they remember it in good faith - and still be mistaken.

There's a good deal of injustice in the criminal justice system, with rape and non-rape cases alike. It helps some criminals to go free and some innocent accused, victims and others to suffer.

Keep up the good work.

Jeff Deutsch

At August 13, 2008 2:40 PM, Blogger Kaethe said...

I'd love to see procedures overhauled and best practices implemented. How can we ever make it up to people who have been falsely incarcerated? I'm not sure that warning the jury of possible errors is the best choice, but it's better than nothing.

Keep up the good fight for justice.


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