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Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Eyewitness testimony? Don’t trust it!

There’s a powerful story in the New York Times today. It’s not about terrible tornadoes, it’s not about January 6’s about eyewitness inaccuracy. And it’s a very important read. 

Writers Corina Knoll, Karen Zraick and Alexandra Alter tell this sad story in-depth. In 1981, Anthony Broadwater was wrongly convicted of raping Alice Sebold, who is now a best-selling author. He served his full sentence. Today’s story explains how he was cleared, after decades of living in the shadow of a crime he didn’t commit. 

It’ll remind you of two speakers we had in our HFP lecture series, Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, who co-authored the best seller Picking Cotton. Our audience was captivated by Jennifer’s riveting account of being raped as a college student, and sending Ronald Cotton to prison as the rapist whom she incorrectly identified. 

These two stories raise an incredibly important issue: Eyewitness error is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. 

The problem is especially prevalent when authorities are dealing with different races. In fact, studies show that misidentifications by eyewitnesses, especially those that are cross-racial, make up a large percentage of erroneous convictions! 

My first experience with this was in my battle to help free Maurice Carter. In his trial, a secretary in a second-floor office down the street, identified Maurice as the man she saw running from the scene of the crime. This was interesting, because she had never met Maurice. Yet, while still watching from her second-story office window, she also saw the victim of the crime. It turns out that she knew the victim, yet she could not identify him!  Her testimony remained unchallenged, and Maurice went on to spend the next 29 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. 

Most wrongful convictions make the news because of DNA-based exonerations. But, according to the Innocence Project, DNA evidence only affects a fraction of criminal cases because it either doesn’t exist or is destroyed after the conviction. 

Prosecutors know darn well that eyewitness testimony can be persuasive evidence before a judge or jury. Yet, 30 years of strong social science research has proven that eyewitness identification is often unreliable. Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder. We don’t record events exactly as we see them, nor do we recall them like a tape that has been rewound. 

Take the time to read the NYT account. 

Then wonder, with me, how many more Anthony Broadwaters and Ronald Cottons there are out there.


1 comment:

Ladyhawk said...

I remember hearing that presentation by the authors of _Picking Cotton_, and wondering what can be done to stop eyewitness accounts being the often sole basis for convictions, hard facts to the contrary. I remember, Doug, that you told about a man you attended his execution, and Jennifer Thompson told about one she witnessed - where the man was not even in the same state and had receipts to prove it, but was convicted by an "eyewitness". It isn't right. It hasn't been right for a long time. I urge people to read "Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me" by social psychologists, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I challenge them to read it. One finds out just how treacherous one's own mind can be. We need to be so careful even in little things, but especially when another's life is at stake. God will not hold guiltless the ones (prosecutors and sloppy detectives, too) who bear false witness against their neighbors!