You Can't Always Believe Your Eyes
In September 1985, Dennis Brown heard the words that sent
him to prison for rape. The victim took the stand and had
no doubt who had attacked her. "I had his face this
close for at least 20 minutes," she said, holding her
hand inches from her face, "and he's the man."
Brown was convicted of aggravated rape and sentenced to
life without parole.
But in October, the 36-year-old Brown walked out of the
Louisiana State Prison in Angola, having been exonerated
by DNA evidence. Last week, prosecutors informed his lawyers
that they were dropping the charges. After being locked
up for 19 years, more than half his life, an innocent man
Like many people in his ill-starred position, Brown was
snared by a mistaken identification. The victim picked him
out of a police lineup, and her testimony provided the bulk
of the evidence against him.
His case illustrates the dangers of relying on what used
seen as the best kind of evidence -- a person who was present
at the scene of the crime who can attest, "I saw him
do it." Time and again, thanks to DNA evidence, we've
seen that a victim can be absolutely sure in identifying
her attacker -- and be absolutely wrong. Amy Klobuchar,
prosecutor for Hennepin County, Minn., which includes Minneapolis,
says faulty identifications are "the single most common
error" generating bad
What is most disturbing is that the mistakes we know about
represent only a tiny share of the total. Most of the exonerations
involve rapes -- where DNA can definitively establish the
perpetrator. But police rarely find bodily fluids in robberies,
muggings, burglaries and other far more common crimes. So
if someone tabs an innocent person, the innocent person
probably won't ever be cleared.
Many of the mistakes occur during police lineups, where
witnesses try to pick out the perpetrator from a group of
people or pictures. Experiments have shown that when confronted
with several possible suspects at once (a "simultaneous"
lineup), the witness is prone to choose whoever most resembles
the actual criminal -- even if the actual criminal is absent.
Presenting the choices one at a time (a "sequential"
lineup) is more likely to yield a correct identification.
In 2001, the New Jersey attorney general required all
departments to change the way they handle lineups to prevent
errors. The change that got the most attention was the adoption
of sequential lineups. But Gary Wells, a psychology professor
at Iowa State University who has been the chief pioneer
in studying eyewitness identification, says that was not
the most important reform. Even more critical was the use
of "double-blind" testing -- where the police
officer conducting the lineup doesn't know which of the
people is thought to be the guilty party.
Why does it matter? Because an officer can consciously
unconsciously steer a witness. Wells, speaking last week
in Minneapolis at a conference on wrongful convictions,
said that when a witness chooses the "wrong" suspect,
the lineup administrator may say, "Are you sure?"
or "Take another look at No. 3." But when the
witness chooses the right suspect, the response may be,
"Tell me about him."
Sometimes the police buttress the witness' memory by saying
something like, "You got the right one." In an
armed robbery in Iowa, Wells recalls, the victim was asked
in the trial how detectives responded when she chose the
defendant's photo. "They clapped," she said.
Normally, the cops aren't trying to manipulate the witness;
they're just being human. But occasionally, the tilt is
intentional. In 2002, the city of Chicago was ordered to
pay $15 million to James Newsome because two detectives
had rigged the lineup in which he was identified, leading
to his mistaken conviction for murder. One witness said
he was repeatedly told to look at Newsome. Newsome said
he saw one detective point him out to another witness.
Problems like these can be avoided -- by turning the lineup
over to someone who knows nothing about the case, or by
presenting the photos so the administrator can't see them,
perhaps on a computer. Such changes have worked well in
New Jersey, where 91 percent of respondents to a statewide
survey of law enforcement agencies said the new methods
created no major problems.
Eyewitness testimony can be extremely useful in catching
criminals, but it needs safeguards to make sure it doesn't
nab the innocent. After all the wrongful convictions in
recent years, no one should have trouble seeing that.
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