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.
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!