David Rudovsky- Civil Rights Attorney

We have learned a great deal from the Innocence Movement with respect to systemic problems in the criminal justice system. Over the past 20 years, there have been 350 DNA exonerations, and over another 1000 exonerations based on overwhelming proof of innocence.  Of the 350 DNA exonerations, close to 20% involve false confessions. Persons convicted of serious crimes, some of whom spent time on death row, were factually innocent, yet they confessed to crimes they did not commit.  So we know that the current methods of police interrogation are flawed in a serious way.

So, too, with eyewitness identifications. In almost 70% of all exonerations, there was an eyewitness who improperly identified the defendant.  In most cases, the testimony was not deliberately false; rather, it was mistaken. What we have found is that police procedures are a major cause of mistaken identifications, and again there are systemic problems.  Many false identifications were the result of suggestive identification procedures, including lineups and photographic displays where police deliberately or unconsciously suggested to the witness the person they believed to be guilty of the crime.

A significant number of wrongful conviction also resulted from faulty laboratory procedures and flawed forensic “science.”  Others resulted from prosecutorial misconduct and poor defense lawyering. The critical point is that all of these problems are systemic and can be corrected. Thus, to deal with the problem of false confessions, one important reform is the videotaping of all police interrogations.  We should also ensure that suspects are treated fairly in this process and that they are not coerced or otherwise induced into saying things which are not true. In Philadelphia, Commissioner Ramsey has started that process and we are hopeful that all police department will soon implement this important reform.

With respect to eyewitness identification procedures, we know from controlled experiments that more reliable identifications will result from “double blind” procedures where the officer who is showing the photographs does not know who the real suspect is so he cannot act in a suggestive manner.  The process is also more reliable if the photographs are shown sequentially, instead of simultaneously (where someone looks at all photos at the same time and may make an identification by “comparison”). Further, if the witness is told that the assailant might not be in the lineup, but that the investigation will continue even if the witness does not make an identification, that tends to reduce the number of false identifications.

David Rudovsky- Civil Rights Attorney


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