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To: Jeffrey S. Mitchell who wrote (1244)3/11/2008 6:44:34 AM
From: Jeffrey S. Mitchell  Respond to of 1389
Re: 3/6/08 - NH Register: Faulty eyewitness IDs prime cause of wrongful convictions

Posted on Thu, Mar 6, 2008
Faulty eyewitness IDs prime cause of wrongful convictions
By David R. Cameron

HARTFORD police recently announced a major breakthrough in the crime for which James Tillman spent 17 years in prison before being exonerated in 2006. The breakthrough calls attention to the role of mistaken eyewitness identifications in wrongful convictions.

Tillman was arrested in 1988 after a woman identified him in a police photo lineup as the man who jumped her as she got into her car after an evening of drinks with co-workers, drove her a couple of blocks and then raped her. Convicted of sexual assault and kidnapping in 1989 and sentenced to 45 years in prison, he was exonerated when DNA testing proved he wasn’t the source of semen left on the woman’s clothing.

Working with investigators in the chief state’s attorney’s cold case unit, the Hartford police linked the DNA found on the woman’s clothing to another man, Duane Foster. Foster lived in Hartford at the time of the attack and has an arrest record for multiple felonies going back three decades. He walked away from a Middletown halfway house a year ago and was arrested last August in Emporia, Va., on burglary and larceny charges in three counties.

Virginia takes a DNA sample not only from anyone convicted of a felony but from anyone arrested on felony charges. As a result, Foster’s DNA was entered into the state’s DNA database after he was arrested. By accessing that database, the Connecticut investigators obtained a match between his DNA and the DNA on the victim’s clothing and also located him. He’ll eventually be brought back to Connecticut and tried for kidnapping.

The identification of Foster as the source of the DNA on the victim’s clothing provides a vivid illustration of why wrongful convictions occur. Side-by-side photographs of Foster and Tillman reveal a startling resemblance between the two. They have similar hairlines, eyebrows, eyes, noses, mouths and facial structures. They also resemble each other in height and weight.

It’s easy to see how the victim could have mistaken Tillman for Foster. That doesn’t excuse the jury for convicting him. A verdict of guilty in a criminal trial requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. An eyewitness identification, however credible, does not constitute proof.

The Innocence Project, which is dedicated to the exoneration by DNA of those who have been wrongfully convicted, reports the single most important cause, by far, of wrongful convictions is eyewitness misidentification. Incorrect eyewitness identifications figured in more than 70 percent of the 200-plus wrongful convictions that were later thrown out because of DNA.

The cautionary lesson of the Tillman case about eyewitness identifications is underscored by recent developments in a New Haven case. Eugenio DeLeon Vega was murdered in his store on Grand Avenue in the early morning of July 4, 1993. George Gould and Ronald Taylor were convicted of murder, burglary and conspiracy. They are now serving sentences of 80 years.

There was no physical evidence linking the men to the murder. A prostitute working the area told police she was nearby at the time of the murder and heard what sounded like two men shouting orders to open a safe, then screaming in Spanish and a gunshot, then saw two men run from the store. When shown photographs of Taylor and Gould, she identified them as the men she had seen.

The prosecutor told the jury “this case rises and falls” with her account: “If you believe her, you’ll convict. If you think she’s lying, you’ll acquit.”

The jury believed her. It turns out she lied.

According to an article in the New Haven Advocate, the woman told Gerald O’Donnell, a private investigator and former inspector in the state’s attorney’s office, in late 2006 — almost 12 years after Gould and Taylor were convicted — that she wasn’t there, didn’t hear the voices and didn’t see the men leave. She fabricated the story, she said, because she was “drug sick” and wanted to end hours of questioning by police.

Last year, forensic scientists found DNA on the cord used to tie up Vega that did not come from him, Gould or Taylor.

State’s Attorney Michael Dearington has reopened the case — something that very rarely happens.

Are all eyewitness identifications mistaken or fabricated? Of course not, but the recent developments in these cases underscore the need for juries to treat such identifications with skepticism, especially when not supported by DNA and other forensic and physical evidence.

David R. Cameron is a professor of political science at Yale. Readers may write to him in care of the Register, 40 Sargent Drive, New Haven 06511.