A photo of Richard Anthony Jones was the 202nd needle in a haystack of mugshots of black men named Richard or Rick. In 1999, a self-described Kansas crackhead pointed at that photo and fingered Jones as the perpetrator of a robbery three months earlier, setting in motion a 17-year nightmare for Jones. It became a textbook example of the dangerous unreliability of eyewitness testimony and flawed police photo lineups, the Kansas City Star reports. “Since that questionable identification, the police never looked at another suspect,” attorneys for Jones said. Despite the absence of physical evidence and an alibi backed up by several witnesses, a jury found Jones guilty. It was only through the dogged persistence of Jones and his attorneys that the testimony was found to be woefully flawed. Last week, a judge vacated Jones’ conviction.
The victim of the robbery, who along with others identified Jones, calls the situation tragic. For criminal justice experts, it’s hardly surprising. Eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. Of more than 300 wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence, mistaken eyewitness identification played a role in about 71 percent of the cases, says the Innocence Project. More police departments began reforming their eyewitness identification procedures in the last decade as the research surrounding criminal eyewitnesses has become accepted science. The National Academy of Sciences raised concerns in 2014 about how photo lineups are presented to witnesses. “Research has consistently shown that the accuracy of these lineups can be skewed or influenced based on how lineups are presented, the type of presentation, how similar the suspect and non-suspects look in the lineup, where the suspect is placed in the presentation, nature of the instructions and any feedback given to the eyewitnesses before or after the identification,” said the academy.