Convicting the Innocent: A powerful force for change

I also thank Danielle and Brandon for including me in this symposium, and am very happy to join the discussion of four very important works on the state of the criminal justice system in America today.

The reference to the Central Park Five in Danielle’s original post highlights one of the most important qualities of Convicting the Innocent: it uses the powerfully told stories of the exonerated to bring to life the new and important detail about the causes of wrongful convictions that Garrett’s research has uncovered. The result is the fullest picture to date of the scope of the “nightmarish reality” that has led to 301 DNA-based exonerations in this country.  Convicting the Innocent is not only a great read for lawyers and lay people alike, it is also a powerful tool for bringing about much-needed systemic change. Dan Medwed’s post appropriately asks whether the works being discussed here urge change that is gradual and specific or change that is revolutionary, going to the heart of the adversary system. In the context of eyewitness misidentification – the leading contributing cause of wrongful convictions, occurring in (as Garrett found) 75 percent of the first 250 exonerations – we see great success in effecting change in both courts and police precincts alike. Brandon Garrett’s research has been critical to these successful reform efforts.

As the attorney responsible for the Innocence Project‘s work in the area of eyewitness identification, I have relied on Convicting the Innocent in my efforts to educate attorneys, judges and policy makers about the perils of misidentification and the flaws in the current legal framework for evaluating identification evidence at trial that is applied in nearly all jurisdictions in the United States. That legal framework, set forth by the Supreme Court in Manson v. Brathwaite, directs courts to balance the effects of improper police suggestion in identification procedures with certain “reliability factors” – the witness’s opportunity to view the perpetrator, the attention paid by the witness, the witness’s certainty in the identification, the time between the crime and confrontation and the accuracy of the witness’s description. (These factors are not exclusive, but most courts treat them as if they are.)

Psychological research in the area of perception and memory has offered conclusive evidence that the identified reliability factors are not well-correlated with accuracy; do not objectively reflect reality to the extent that they are self-reported; and – most critically – are inflated by suggestion, leading to the perverse result that the more suggestive the identification procedure, the higher the measures of reliability under the Manson test.

Garrett’s work in Convicting the Innocent adds an important dimension to the psychological research – and makes even more urgent the call to reform the Manson test – by demonstrating that the Manson test failed in the cases of the 190 exonerees who were convicted based, at least in part, on identification evidence that was either not challenged or admitted as reliable under Manson. Garrett’s work shows just how the Manson reliability factors fail to ensure reliability: in most cases reviewed by Garrett, the witnesses had poor viewing opportunities; had only a few seconds to see the perpetrator’s face, which was often disguised or otherwise obscured; made identifications weeks or months after the crime; and provided descriptions that were substantially different from the wrongly accused’s appearance. In addition, almost all of the witnesses in the cases reviewed by Garrett expressed complete confidence at trial – stating for example that “there is absolutely no question in my mind” (Steven Avery’s case); that “[t]his is the man or it is his twin brother” (Thomas Doswell’s case) – although DNA later proved that these witnesses were entirely wrong. Perhaps most striking of all of Garrett’s research findings in the area of eyewitness misidentification is that in 57 percent of the trials with certain eyewitnesses, the witnesses had expressed earlier uncertainty (strongly suggesting that the identification was unreliable), but only 21 percent of these witnesses admitted their earlier uncertainty.

The Innocence Project has relied on Garrett’s research in advocating for the reform of the legal framework for evaluating identification evidence in courts around the country, from the U.S. Supreme Court (Perry v. New Hampshire) to state supreme courts from Oregon (State v. Lawson) and Washington (State v. Allen) to New Jersey (State v. Henderson) and Pennsylvania (State v. Walker). In two of these cases – Henderson and Lawson – high courts found that Manson fails to ensure reliability and implemented new legal tests that better reflect the scientific research and, we hope, will better prevent wrongful convictions based on eyewitness misidentification. Both the Henderson and Lawson courts cited Convicting the Innocent in rendering their decisions, demonstrating just how powerful a force for change Garrett’s work is.


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