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Study shows witness IDs send many innocent people to prison

Nearly 70% of all exonerations based on DNA evidence involve mistaken witness identifications, according to a report commissioned by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals.

The court set up a task force in 2016, which was the first federal effort to address the subject. The results were published last fall in the Temple Law Review, exposing the criminal justice system’s over-reliance on eyewitness accounts.

Justice labels eyewitness testimony a unique threat

In 2012, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor cited research showing that mistaken identification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. Sotomayor labeled eyewitness accounts “a unique threat to the fairness of trial.”

The misidentifications often result from police lineups and photo arrays, which are portrayed as time-honored investigative techniques that confirm diligent detective work on TV shows, such as “Law and Order” and other police dramas.

60 Minutes report reveals unreliability of witness IDs

A TV newsmagazine helped expose the weakness of eyewitness testimony. In 2009, “60 Minutes” featured the story of Ronald Cotton, who was picked out of a group of photos and later a lineup by a rape victim.

The victim told police Cotton “looked the most like” her rapist. After being asked if she was certain, and saying she was, the detective told her Cotton was also the person she IDed in the photo. She later told PBS’s “Frontline” that she felt tremendous relief that she had identified the right person.

Cotton was found guilty of the rape and another assault that took place the same night. He was sentenced to a pair of life sentences plus 54 years in prison. He served more than 10 years before a DNA test confirmed his innocence and pointed to another man.

Study recommends strategies to avoid mistaken identity

Researchers say there are practices available to law enforcement to minimize these costly errors. One is for police to conduct “double-blind” lineups and photo arrays, where neither the victim nor the officer administering the procedure knows the identity of the suspect.

The authors of the study also urge that police place people next to a suspect in a lineup who more closely match the witness’s description. They also advise against allowing victims to browse through mugshots or photo albums for initial identifications.

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