As regular readers of the Innocence Blog may know, eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing in the United States. An editorial piece published in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer examines this phenomenon and how it may very well have sent an innocent youth to prison nearly four decades ago.
According to the Inquirer, Kevin Brinkley was only 15 when he was convicted of killing an egg delivery man in 1977. Two alleged witnesses placed him at the crime scene. He was sentenced to life in prison. But the past 40 years, the Brinkley family has insisted that the wrong person was convicted; they say that the person responsible for the crime was actually Ronald Brinkley, Kevin’s younger brother.
In 1994, Ronald Brinkley testified in court that it was he, not his brother, who had committed the crime. He also said that he’d signed a written confession stating so, but that at trial in 1978 he declined to testify at the advice of his attorney. A judge ruled that his 1994 testimony lacked credibility.
Now, following a Supreme Court ruling that automatic life sentences for juveniles are unconstitutional, Brinkley is up for release on parole after his sentenced was amended to 30 years to life.
In its editorial, the Inquirer stated that the Brinkleys’ case underlines why convictions cannot be based on eyewitness identifications alone. It also emphasizes the need for universal adoption of eyewitness identification practices to avoid future wrongful convictions. The Inquirer writes:
Scores of scientific studies over the decades have shown that eyewitnesses are often inaccurate. That results in innocent people going to prison. Some basic police department reforms could help reduce eyewitness misidentification.
- The police officer administering the lineup should not know who is the suspect. This can prevent suggestive statements, unconscious gestures, and vocal cues that may influence a witness.
- Eyewitnesses should view suspects one at a time, so they are not compared to one another but rather against the witness’ memory.
- Eyewitnesses should be told in advance the suspect may or may not be in the lineup and the investigation will continue regardless of the results. That would ease pressure on eyewitnesses to make an identification even if they are not confident in their selection.
- The identification procedures should be recorded and eyewitnesses asked how confident they are in their identification.