Friday, July 13, 2007

Eyewitnesses Get it Wrong

In this age of the laboratory crime thriller, some people might still be surprised to learn that a large percentage of crimes are solved as a result of testimony by eyewitnesses. Unfortunately, as is becoming quite clear, eyewitnesses make mistakes. And the story of Arthur Carmona, as recounted in this op-ed in today's LA Times, leaves little doubt that innocent men, women-and yes children-are going to jail because of it:

On Feb. 12, 1998, I decided to visit a friend. While I was walking down a residential street, a Costa Mesa police officer stopped me at gunpoint. I was handcuffed and surrounded by other police officers with guns drawn. One officer forced a baseball cap onto my head and made me stand on the curb. I did not know it at the time, but witnesses from a robbery had been brought to identify me in what is known as an "in-field show-up," a procedure that is highly likely to produce mistaken identifications. I was arrested in connection with 13 strong-arm robberies.

My mother was able to gather evidence proving that her 15-year-old son was in school during 11 of the robberies. But we had no evidence to prove that, at 2 a.m. on a school night, I was home asleep while someone robbed a Denny's restaurant, and we had no proof that I was home baby-sitting my 11-year-old sister during the time a juice bar in another city was being robbed.

The getaway driver, a parolee with a long criminal record, admitted being involved in the robberies. He first told police he did not know me and that I was not involved. Then the Orange County district attorney offered him a sentence of two years if he would say I was. He took the plea bargain and his story changed; he was freed from prison before I was.

The court found me guilty of two strong-arm robberies, and I was facing 35 years for crimes I took no part in. The judge sentenced me to 12 years in state prison. I was 16, with no criminal record. I would have been eligible for parole in nine years, with two strikes to my name, one strike away from a life term.

Carmona was eventually freed from prison, after he signed what amounted to a coerced stipulation wherein he agreed not to sue the state for putting him away. In short, a deal got him in jail, and a deal got him free. Neither had anything to do with justice.

The increased use of DNA evidence has prevented some innocent people from going to jail, and it's freed others. Of course, a problem with that approach is that for many crimes, there is no DNA evidence that can either convict or exonerate the accused. In some cases, the only evidence is the testimony of an eyewitness, which can be faulty even when the witness sincerely believes what he or she saw and has the best intentions in testifying. The piece details some legislation being considered in California that would reform police procedures as relates to eyewitnesses, and some departments have adopted similar reforms willingly. No criminal should go unpunished for the crimes they have committed, but no innocent man should ever go to jail for a crime he didn't commit. Law enforcement procedures nationwide should be reformed to reflect a better balance of those considerations.

1 comment:

adam said...

Good post.