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The problem with eyewitness identifications

Long-time fans of "Law and Order" will know the character Det. Lennie Briscoe, portrayed by actor Jerry Orbach. Many's the time he had confrontations with superiors and attorneys as he worked to build his case. He often would say, "Yeah, but we got an eyewitness," as if that was some sort of trump card.

Eyewitness identifications are important to the prosecution and deserve to be taken seriously. However, attorneys in Tennessee experienced in defending individuals against criminal charges know many factors can go into making such identifications. Witnesses can swear under oath that they know the defendant committed a crime, but mistakes happen. With a person's life and future at stake, every piece of evidence deserves scrutiny.

How often we make misidentifications is hard to pin down. One study of cases in which defendants were convicted in part based on eyewitness testimony, but later exonerated by DNA evidence, found that it happened 75 percent of the time.

The way police go about obtaining such evidence can increase the chances of mistakes occurring. Maybe a photo array provides only one suspect matching the witness description. If an officer has a bias against a particular suspect, that might get transmitted to a prospective witness and sway the outcome. Prosecutors and police using the threat of possible legal action can influence a witness' testimony as well.

That is something alleged in a lawsuit filed in Portland, Maine. The plaintiff is a man who spent the last 27 years in prison for the 1992 stabbing death of a girl. The man had always insisted on his innocence, but an eyewitness testified she saw him do it.

A court ordered the man freed last month after the witness recanted her testimony. She now admits that she was legally blind at the time, a fact the defense team never knew. She also said authorities threatened to prosecute her if she refused to testify.

Police, of course, deny that happened, but it's naïve to think it never does.

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