Thursday, March 16, 2006
From the San Jose Mercury News:
Eyewitness testimony is often unreliable and has been a significant cause of wrongful convictions, a series of witnesses Wednesday told a commission charged with examining problems in California's criminal justice system.
Gary Wells, a research psychologist at Iowa State University and one of the leading experts in issues of eyewitness identification, told members of the Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice that mistaken identification was a factor in about four of every five cases nationwide in which DNA testing eventually exonerated convicted defendants.
Testifying at the first public hearing of the commission, headed by former state attorney general John Van de Kamp, Wells advocated that the commission urge police agencies statewide to adopt a series of precautions to reduce false identifications by victims and witnesses who are shown photographs or live lineups of suspects. Identifications in such circumstances should be treated as ``fragile'' evidence that requires specific guidelines to ensure its reliability.
Mistaken identification, Van de Kamp said, ``causes injury when it occurs. The question is what can we do about it?'' The commission, which includes prosecutors, defense lawyers and representatives of police agencies, went into a private session at the close of Wednesday's hearing. Executive Director Gerald Uelmen, law professor at Santa Clara University, said the commission may issue its report on eyewitness identification in a number of weeks.
The members of the commission include Santa Clara County District Attorney George Kennedy, whose office in 2002 persuaded law enforcement agencies throughout the county to adopt new protocols guarding against mistaken identification. Those procedures included two measures that Wells highlighted Wednesday: having lineups conducted by an officer who does not know the suspect's identity and having witnesses view suspects one at a time, not in a group.