March 26, 2009
Your eyes may deceive you

The Chron covers a report by the Justice Project about faulty eyewitness testimony and the many wrongful convictions to which it has led.

Most wrongful convictions in Texas stem from mistaken eyewitness identifications, errors that experts say could have been avoided -- or even eliminated -- with more sophisticated lineup techniques, according to a report released Wednesday.

Since 1994, DNA evidence has exonerated 39 men convicted in Texas of crimes ranging from kidnapping to murder, according to a report Wednesday by the Justice Project, a nonprofit focused on criminal justice reform.

Six of the cases occurred in Harris County. Each was investigated by the Houston Police Department. Each was built on flawed eyewitness evidence.

"Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in Texas and across the country," said Edwin Colfax, Texas director of the Justice Project, which analyzed the factors that contributed to the wrongful convictions.

"But of law enforcement agencies across Texas, only a tiny fraction have any written policies for these critical investigative procedures and only a tiny fraction have implemented best practices," he said.


The Justice Project report calls on law enforcement agencies to adopt several procedures, such as documenting the entire lineup process and having an uninvolved or "blind" officer conduct a lineup. It also recommends that witnesses see suspects' photos one after another rather than at the same time in an array.

There are numerous bills that have been filed to address these points, many by State Sen. Rodney Ellis. The main opposition comes from police departments and District Attorneys, in some cases on grounds of disagreement as to what best practices are, and in some cases on grounds of pigheadedness.

Grits has a link to the full report. He also notes that the wrongful conviction figures are understated:

Ironically, by focusing solely on DNA exonerations, such analyses understate the real number of innocent Texans who've been exonerated - 35 were pardoned from the Tulia drug stings, 24 innocents were set up in the Dallas "fake drug" scandal, and another dozen or so were set up by a lying informant in Hearne, an event about which a major motion picture will be released next month.

Add those to the 39 DNA cases the Justice Project examines and the number of recent exonerations easily tops 100. (And it would not be difficult for some law student to spend some quality time on Westlaw to add to the list.)

If even some of the bills that address these issues get passed, it will be a huge step forward. For more on problems with eyewitness identification, Grits has you covered.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 26, 2009 to Crime and Punishment
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