The execution of Troy Davis, who was put to death despite substantial evidence pointing to his innocence, has sparked a national conversation about eyewitness misidentification.
Even before Davis’ execution, several states had reduced reliance on eyewitnesses. In 2009, Maryland lawmakers prohibited prosecutors from seeking the death penalty without DNA evidence, a videotape of the crime or a videotaped confession from the suspect.
Just last month, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling calling for more substantial pre-trial hearings on eyewitness evidence and more detailed jury instructions about potential flaws in eyewitness identifications.
And in November, the United States Supreme Court is slated to hear a New Hampshire case that asks whether courts should throw out eyewitness testimony that’s been influenced by friends and neighbors in the same way they would reject witnesses tainted by police, reported the Associated Press.
Davis was convicted of shooting a Savannah police officer in 1989. Since his trial, seven of the nine witnesses who identified him as the shooter have recanted their testimony. Strong evidence now points to another man as the true perpetrator.
“Eyewitness testimony is so horribly inaccurate — even under the very best of circumstances,” said Rob Warden, director of the Chicago-based Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. “We should never depend on eyewitness testimony in death penalty cases.”
The most common element in all wrongful convictions later overturned by DNA evidence has been eyewitness misidentification, playing a role in more than 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing. Misleading lineup methods have been used for decades without serious scrutiny. Now is the time for change.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, said the legal system is poised to change how it handles eyewitness evidence.
“The Troy Davis execution came at a time where we’re at tipping point or there’s critical mass concerning eyewitness reform,” Scheck said, noting the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the issue since 1977. “Thirty-four years later, the science dictates it has to change.”