Mistaken Identities: A reporting case study

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Too little training and too few standard procedures seem to be at the heart of ongoing problems with the validity and use of eyewitness testimony within the criminal justice system. Those were the findings of reporters Steve McGonigle and Jennifer Emily of the Dallas Morning News, who spent eight months in 2008 investigating local law enforcement's use and misuse of eyewitnesses in prosecuting criminal suspects.

Read the Dallas Morning News articles here

To learn more about the series and how the reporters did it or to access resources for reporting on the use of eyewitness testimony, go here.

For a further explanation continue reading.

According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit group which tracks wrongful convictions, Dallas County has led the country in DNA exoneration with 19 since 2001. Of those cases, McGonigle and Emily found all but one was built on eyewitness accounts. But McGonigle and Emily pushed themselves to go beyond the typical DNA exoneration story.

“We wanted to know to what we could apply to cases being tried today,” McGonigle said. “Otherwise we're on an archaeological dig, and we didn't want the current [justice system authorities] to be off the hook.”

They reviewed all the robbery trials in Dallas County for 2006 and 2007 and studied 20 years worth of state appellate court opinions. They say they found “a criminal justice system that ignored safeguards to protect the innocent” with the following deficits:

A lack of written policies on identification techniques and little training for police officers in how to conduct commonly used photo lineups. Local law enforcement agencies seldom, if ever, use the sequential blind method recommended by social scientists, in which the photos are shown one at a time, instead of all at once, by an officer not involved in the case.
Police rely heavily on “showups” in which witnesses are often driven in a squad car past a suspect. Critics say that witnesses can be eager to please the police or may believe that the police already have a good reason to suspect the person being shown to them. They are also routinely conducted without benefit of training or departmental policies to follow.

The investigative series did have an impact, prompting a review of all death penalty cases in the Dallas County D.A.'s office and as of January 2009, the Dallas police department has now adopted the sequential blind method for photo lineups.

To learn more about the series and how the reporters did it or to access resources for reporting on the use of eyewitness testimony, go here.

To read the Dallas Morning News articles click here.

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