why convicts LOVE DNA testing and hate eye-witness testimony

 

photo credit: sunface13 via photopin cc
photo credit: sunface13 via photopin cc

Exonerations.

DNA testing is a powerful tool in the world of forensic science because of it’s ability to link people to crimes. But it’s DNA’s ability to exclude people from crime scene evidence that makes it so indispensable, particularly to the innocent sitting in prison.

Yesterday, the NY Times reported that 5 innocent men stand to gain $40 million for the time they spent locked up in a New York jail. They were convicted of attacking a women in Central Park in 1989 when they were only 14-16 years old. Their convictions were based on coerced confessions by law enforcement. Later, it came to light that not only had a convict confessed to the crime (and confessed to acting alone), but there was DNA evidence in the case that linked the confessor to the crime and exonerated the five who were wrongly convicted. 

According to the Innocence Project, there have been 316 post-conviction DNA exonerations to date in the US. That’s 316 innocent people that have served an average of 13.5 years behind bars for a crime they didn’t commit. Can you imagine? How many made-for-TV movies or big-screen thrillers have we watched with this as a plot line? How many books have we read?

It might interest you to know that the single biggest cause of wrongful convictions is eye-witness testimony. In 73% of the cases where DNA was used to set an innocent person free, that person was convicted because someone identified the wrong person.

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc
photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

I had the opportunity to hear Barry Scheck speak on the failures of eye-witness identification and ways to conduct an unbiased line-up at a law school a few years ago. It was fascinating and completely common sense. Curious to know what he said? From my memory banks…

If you’re going to have a line-up (either photo or real people), you should tell the eye-witness that the perpetrator may or may not be in the line-up. Seems reasonable, right? But think about it: if someone showed you 5 guys and said, “Which one of these guys did it?” then you would pick the guy that looked most like what you remember. And because you might not have seen him for very long, it’s possible that the person from the lineup that looked like the real guy, would now be stuck in your memory as the perpetrator just because you had seen him more recently. But if the eye-witness is told, “the perpetrator may or may not be in this line up,” then the eye-witness might respond, “It could be #3, but I’m not sure.”

If you’re going to have a line-up, then the people in the line up need to look the same. Take our picture above. If the perpetrator were wearing all black and a black helmet, who do you think the eye-witness is going to select? Now what if the the person was wearing all white with a white helmet? Which guy would they choose?

Or picture this. A woman was outside a convenience store that was robbed at gun point. The perpetrator knocked the woman down as he was running to get away. Thanks to the security cameras at the quicky mart, the police have a pretty good idea who the perpetrator is. So they bring the woman to the station, line up 5 guys, one of whom is their suspect, and ask her if any of them are the guy who knocked her down. The first one comes forward, faces to the side, and gets back in line. The woman says, “No, that’s not him.” The second guy comes forward, faces to the side, and gets back in line. The woman says, “No, that’s not him.” The third guy comes forward, faces to the side, and gets back in line. The woman says, “No, that’s not him.” This time, her police escort says, “Are you sure?”

Who do you think their suspect is?

The point being, that it is important that the person conducting the line up not know who the suspect is so that he doesn’t unwittingly clue the eye-witness. Want to read more? Check out the Innocence Project’s article on Eyewitness Misidentification.

Care to test your eye-witness capabilities? Do this: Tell me as much as you can about the last cashier that checked you out at the grocery store. Gender, age, sex, height, weight, distinguishing features, clothing. Go!

 

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13 thoughts on “why convicts LOVE DNA testing and hate eye-witness testimony

  1. Hi Lisa! Found your link on the ACFW e-loop. In my pre-children life, I graduated law school. 🙂 One of the most fascinating things I remember about my Criminal Law class was how unreliable an eye witness is. I’m excited to be following your blog now, and I’ll look you up on Facebook.

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  2. Oh boy – never gonna happen. I cannot remember phsyical details to save my life. A man at church that I’ve known all my life once shaved off his full-beard and my mother and I were whispering together, “there’s something different about him. But what is it??” lol

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  3. Fascinating stuff, Lisa. I’m relieved to know there’s something more reliable than easily coerced or simply human, confused eye witnesses.

    I can easily recall the details of the last cashier who waited on me–because I work with her! But that’s not always the case. When i have to take an order out to a waiting customer, I think I’ll have no trouble picking them out of the crowd but too often, I walk in circles as all the faces blur together.

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  4. Lisa, it’s even tougher if you have face blindness (prosopagnosia). I have a mild case. I can meet someone at a social gathering, talk to them for 5-20 minutes, then run into them the next day in a different setting (the mall, grocery store, Costco) and have no idea I’ve ever seen them before.

    Some people have it so severely that they can’t recognize their spouse, kids, or even their parents (I sometimes have a difficult time recognizing my wife if she goes inside church or a theater and I come in later–very unsettling). My other face blindness contacts on a Facebook group agree that they could NEVER work with a sketch artist to identify a suspect.

    I’m always blown away when someone recognizes another person from some obscure meeting they had long ago. I could never do that.

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    1. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to have prosopagnosia. I’ve never heard of that condition before, but I would think that would make it difficult to go out in public.

      This might be a stupid question – but do you ever have a problem recognizing your own face? Like in a mirror or a picture?

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      1. Not a stupid question at all. I don’t have a problem with mirrors (other than I look a lot older than I picture myself, but that’s purely self-delusion!). Some of my contacts say they will walk by a mirror (like a full-length one in a hallway at a hotel) and not know it’s them on the other side. One said she got mad at the woman for staring at her–then she realized it was herself. Of course, when looking into a mirror like in a bathroom, they already know it’s them, so no problem there.

        Jobs are a challenge. One woman said she had to give up her job as a bartender because she couldn’t keep track of who had too many drinks. Others say they tend to “back room” types of jobs where they don’t have to meet the public. It’s embarrassing to say hi to the same retail customer in a store 2-3 times because you can’t remember you’ve already greeted them.

        Another mom said she takes a picture of her child each morning with her cell phone as he leaves for school, because she wouldn’t be able to identify him if something bad happened. Another dad said if his daughter didn’t run up to him when he picks her up from pre-school, he’d never know which girl was his.

        It’s usually a genetic condition, but it can be caused by brain injury. It’s not that they are unable to “see” the parts of the face—nose, ears, eyes, etc.—but that the brain can’t put all the pieces into a recognizable whole that can be remembered.

        And you’re right, it leads to terribly embarrassing situations, causing many to pull back from social situations. Amazingly, many people don’t realize they have it until they are into their forties–shows how well we humans can cope.

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  5. Lisa, it’s even tougher if you have face blindness (prosopagnosia). I have a mild case. I can meet someone at a social gathering, talk to them for 5-20 minutes, then run into them the next day in a different setting (the mall, grocery store, Costco) and have no idea I’ve ever seen them before.

    Some people have it so severely that they can’t recognize their spouse, kids, or even their parents (I sometimes have a difficult time recognizing my wife if she goes inside church or a theater and I come in later–very unsettling). My other face blindness contacts on a Facebook group agree that they could NEVER work with a sketch artist to identify a suspect.

    I’m always blown away when someone recognizes another person from some obscure meeting they had long ago. I could never do that.

    Like

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