Michael Hutchinson was convicted of robbing a California convenience store based largely on the eyewitness identification of the clerk who was on duty when a masked intruder burst through the doors, says the San Jose Mercury News. His appellate attorney was convinced an expert could prove that his client was too tall to be the robber shown on a store surveillance camera, but a court rejected a request for money to hire an expert. An outside expert, hired by the Mercury News to perform the analysis Hutchinson was denied in state court believes he is not the robber.
Eyewitness identification is one of the most powerful types of evidence a prosecutor can present to a jury. That same evidence is too often untrustworthy, even when a sympathetic witness takes the stand and says with certainty that the defendant committed the crime. Elizabeth Loftus, a University of California-Irvine professor, has studied memory and mistaken identification for two decades. In recent years, she says, “DNA testing has confirmed just how unreliable eyewitness identification can be. It is the cause of most cases of wrongful conviction.” Wednesday, the frailties of eyewitness identification will be the topic when a new state commission begins examining issues that plague the criminal justice system. The commission chair, former state Attorney General John Van de Kamp, said eyewitness identification is at the top of the list’ of problems.