The Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole, in denying clemency and executing Troy Davis yesterday, apparently relied on the validity of eyewitness identifications made at trial—even though seven of the nine "eyewitnesses" have since recanted. Compounding this, Jennifer Dysart, an expert in eyewitness science stated that the parole board ended the hearing before she had a chance to testify about the failings of eyewitness evidence. Could the state execute an innocent person? It raises a vital question: How reliable is eyewitness identification?
Mistaken eyewitness testimony is the single highest contributor in sending the wrong person away for someone else’s crime, according the Justice Brandeis Innocence Project. In fact, mistaken eyewitnesses have played a role in 75% of the 273 DNA exonerations in the U.S. when the power of DNA exculpated the innocent—and put away the guilty.
In plain numbers: 187 men and women were sentenced to prison for something they didn’t do because a witness made a mistake. And, even worse: in 36% cases, more than one person made the same mistake, identifying the same wrong perpetrator, according to information provided by the group.
But according to Garrett, what’s perhaps most worrying is the fact that these criminal cases were perfectly normal—there was nothing particularly extraordinary about most of them, and yet the system got it wrong. That, says Garrett, is very troubling.
“If there is no reason to think that anyone acted differently in these cases as compared to others, then similar errors may have convicted countless other innocent people and led to the guilty going free,” Garrett wrote in his book Convicting the Innocent.
What this all suggests is that, despite best intentions on behalf of law enforcement, prosecutors, and especially eyewitnesses and traumatized victims, there’s quite likely someone in your own area who has also been the victim of a fallible system—and you yourself could become the next victim.
Troy Davis, the 43-year old Georgian executed on September 21st for a police officer’s murder, maintained his innocence from the beginning. Even from the gurney last night, he exhorted the family of the murdered police officer to continue to search for truth in the case.
Doubt shrouds the Davis case. One of the eyewitnesses who testified against Davis could possibly be the true perpetrator.Science questions the validity of eyewitness identification. And a significant number of recent cases indicate that, if a life hangs in the balance, eyewitness identification is not to be trusted