A recent panel at Duke Law School hosted various experts on the subject of eyewitness identifications in criminal trials. Panelists discussed the use of eyewitness identification and the inherent problems with the reliability such evidence and its role in contributing to wrongful convictions.
Few of us can imagine being convicted of a crime we did not commit, yet there are thousands of cases across the country where individuals have been declared innocent of crimes for which they’ve wrongfully served decades in prison. Such a tragedy represents the worst possible violation of liberty imaginable and an across the board failure of our justice system.
Righting such wrongs and preventing future wrongful convictions is an issues around which prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges find themselves on the same side, noted panelist Benjamin David, New Hanover Country District Attorney. Efforts have been put in place by law enforcement and district attorneys in North Carolina to attempt to prevent faulty identification as much as possible. David described a tier of considerations District Attorneys use when determining the significance of eyewitness identification.
Fellow panelist Jennifer Thompson quickly pointed out that unfortunately, there is no fool proof way to guarantee that the wrong person is never identified as evidenced her wrongful identification of her assailant years ago. Thompson detailed the painstaking efforts she made during her assault to memorize the face of her attacker. Nonetheless, she identified the wrong man and believed for over a decade that he was the man who had assaulted her. Thompson described the tremendous pressure and influence a victim faces in interacting with law enforcement to identify a perpetrator.
The picture painted by the panel regarding the chasm between scientific best practices and use of this type of evidence was deeply troubling. Salk University Professor Tom Albright noted the long-standing resistance within the criminal justice system to utilize validation of best practices. U.S. Circuit Judge Theodore McKee pointed out that evidence should meet a certain threshold before it is able to be presented before a jury, but, no such threshold exists. McKee referenced the Daubert standard of evidence regarding the threshold that expert witness testimony must reach in order to be presented to a jury and questioned why no such similar requirement existed for use of evidence such as with finger prints and eyewitness identification.
Conservatives in search of reforms that will improve our justice system ought to be concerned about the use of such troubling evidence in criminal proceedings. When the wrong person is convicted of a crime, the harms go far beyond the gross infringement on that individual’s liberty. The victim(s) are revictimized, the real perpetrator remains free to harm others, and the justice system carries the financial burden of dedicating resources to right a wrong that should have never occurred.