Case Vacated: Inaccurate Eyewitness Identification Highlighted
Today, the testimony of eyewitnesses is one of the most compelling ways prosecutors prove the guilt of a criminal defendant in court. Unfortunately, according to the Innocence Project-a nonprofit organization involved in exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals-it’s also one of the main reasons cited for wrongful convictions.
Further, despite the confidence of many eyewitnesses, psychologists today believe that eyewitnesses simply can’t remember, as well as they think, physical features of a suspect.
One high-profile case in New York was recently dismissed after the court acknowledged that theeyewitness ID used to convict the defendant in the case wasn’t accurate and couldn’t be used against him. The case is one of many to offer proof to the public that eyewitness identification may be a bit overrated.
The Facts of the Case
In 1991, a man burglarized a home in Rochester, New York. He was wearing a face scarf and blanket around his torso. A resident of the home provided eyewitnesses testimony that was used to convict the man of armed robbery. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison based.
The Court Procedure
In 1998, however, the Fourth Judicial Department of New York’s Appellate Division reversed the conviction reasoning that the police lineup identifying the accused was tainted.
According to reports, the eyewitness was first shown a photo array of individuals (that included the suspect) but was unable to identify him. However, at a subsequent police lineup she was able to identify the suspect, only because it was determined that he was the only person included in both the photo array and the lineup.
The Fourth Judicial Court stipulated that prosecutors needed to convince the court that the witness identification was “independently reliable enough” from the lineup in order for the case to proceed. They did and the case was later retried. The defendant was once again convicted.
The defendant filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, a hearing where the defendant seeks to have the case reviewed for cause. A federal magistrate heard the case threw out the convictions.
In October 2012, a three judge panel from the Court of Appeals Second Circuit agreed with the magistrate’s decision but allowed the case to be tried once again-but this time without the evidence of the eyewitness identification. The case is pending trial.
According to the 2nd Circuit opinion, “Mrs. Sykes observed the perpetrator’s eyes during a period of five to seven minutes, in a highly stressful situation.”
It remains to be seen what the outcome of the case will be. However, it’s likely many more cases that utilized present eyewitness identification to convict will continue to be suspect.
According to the Innocence Project, “Despite solid proof of the inaccuracy of traditional methods-and the availability of simple measures to reform them-eyewitness IDs remain among the most common and compelling evidence brought against criminal defendants.”