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False eyewitness testimony cause of many wrongful convictions

Francisco Carrillo, Jr., was wrongfully convicted of a fatal drive-by shooting. He spent 20 years in prison before his conviction was overturned in 2011. Since then, two men have confessed to the crime.

Carrillo's case arises as an illustration in an editorial by the Los Angeles Times about the unreliability of eyewitness testimony. The Times says that wrongful convictions plague California, but the problem is nationwide. The National Registry of Exonerations has recorded 2,215 exonerations since 1989 and it found that some 29 percent of them involve a mistaken witness identification.

Carrillo was convicted after a Sheriff's deputy asked a 15-year-old eyewitness to identify the drive-by assailant. Instead of a traditional lineup or photo array, the officer provided the teenager with a single photo and told him that it showed their main suspect.

Five other eyewitnesses were shown the photo under the same circumstances. Now, all of the eyewitnesses have recanted.

Over ten years ago, California's attorney general formed a commission to investigate the failures of California's criminal justice system. Problems with eyewitness identifications were so prevalent that the commission didn't even wait to publish its report. It made urgent recommendations to make the process fairer and more accurate:

  • Eyewitness identifications should be "double blind," meaning that neither the witness nor the officers involved know which person in a lineup or photo array is the actual suspect.
  • Witnesses should be told that the suspect might or might not be in the lineup or photo array so the witness doesn't feel pressured to pick someone even if they don't feel confident they recognize the suspect.

Those recommendations did not pass at the time.

Texas passed lineup reform several years ago, but there are still real problems with eyewitness identification. We may use a fairer process than some other states but, as the Times points out, witnesses still sometimes say "I think that's they guy" when what they're really thinking is "I really can't tell."

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