The fallibility of eyewitness testimony shown by DNA exonerations is not a relic of the past. Police and prosecutors still depend on the same discredited identification procedures to ensure convictions today, reports the Dallas Morning News in the third of a 3-part series. Police use these techniques in a variety of crimes from murders to robberies. The difference between today’s cases and the 19 exonerations involving sexual assaults is that often there is no DNA to ensure guilt or innocence. “We’ve shown how unreliable eyewitness testimony is in sexual assault cases,” said Rob Warden of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University law school. “But now the system itself is pretending that all of these armed robbery cases are just hunky dory when we know, if anything, it’s no doubt less reliable in an armed robbery case than in a sexual assault case.”
It’s impossible to estimate how many wrongful convictions might be occurring in cases without genetic evidence. “There is no question that there are many more mistakes that we will never know about because there is no DNA in those cases,” said Edwin Colfax, an Austin researcher with the nonprofit reform group The Justice Project. The Morning News examined robbery trials in Dallas County from 2006 and 2007. Eyewitness testimony is the most crucial element in robbery cases. The newspaper found that law enforcement still relies heavily on eyewitness testimony, even if corroborating evidence is weak and despite decades of research showing its shortcomings. Eyewitness testimony can be unreliable for a variety of reasons. Victims often get only a brief look at their attackers, especially in robberies, and they tend to focus on the gun rather than the face. Accurately identifying strangers, especially of a different race, is difficult, and the stress of being a crime victim can distort memories.