Stories on this blog often focus on wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing, including more than 150 convictions based on faulty eyewitness identification. We don’t often write about the thousands of cases in which a suspect is arrested and charged but cleared before trial when DNA or other evidence proves their innocence. These cases are the close calls that could have become wrongful convictions, and they number in the thousands. In a National Institute of Justice study of 10,000 cases in the 1990s, 25 percent of suspects were cleared before trial by DNA tests. How many defendants didn’t have additional evidence to refute a questionable eyewitness identification or unreliable science?
The case of Richard Houston Jr. in Modesto, California, illustrates the power of eyewitness identification to lead to a wrongful arrest. Houston spent 55 days in the county jail waiting for trial on an armed robbery he didn’t commit after an eyewitness said he was “100 percent sure” he saw Houston in the dark from 125 feet away with his shirt pulled over his nose. He identified Houston in a “show-up” procedure on the night of the crime, where police brought the eyewitness to the house where they found Houston, pulled Houston’s shirt over his nose and shined lights on him for the eyewitness.
A district attorney, however, watched a surveillance videotape recently from a store where the victim saw the gunman. The tape showed that Houston could not have been the perpetrator and Houston was released after serving nearly two months in jail.
"I felt reborn when I walked through the gate," said Houston, 20, about his release from the Stanislaus County Public Safety Center. Houston splits his time between Modesto, where his stepmother lives, and his father's home in Stockton. "I spent 55 days in jail. That time's double when you're in there for nothing."
While cases like Houston’s illustrate that eyewitness identification can often be unreliable, prosecutors and defense attorneys disagree on whether they prove that the system is broken, or that it works.
For the wrongfully accused who wind up in Houston's shoes in Stanislaus County, there's a chance their innocence could be overlooked. In her experience, situations such as Houston's happen at least several times a year, said Martha J. Carlton-Magaña, a Modesto defense attorney who worked for the Stanislaus County public defender's office for two decades before retiring in April. It's impossible to know for sure how often this happens, because DNA evidence, which isn't available in most cases, is the primary tool for exonerations.
"Our system is broken in this county because we don't have the checks and balances in place that we should," she said.
Chief Deputy District Attorney John Goold said Houston's release shows the opposite.
"As much as possible, we can't have people in jail who did not commit crimes. When it happens, we want to find out as soon as possible," he said. "In all honesty, you have to say the system as a whole worked, even though he had to spend some time in jail."
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. (Modesto Bee, 11/13/2007)