Last week another faulty eyewitness identification was exposed, and another wrongfully convicted man was set free, thanks to the continued good work of the Innocence Project. Antonio Beaver spent more than ten years in Missouri prisons, after being convicted for a carjacking he didn’t commit.
In some ways Mr. Beaver’s case is much like other wrongful-conviction cases in which the (eventual) exoneree was convicted based on a bad eyewitness identification procedure. The police placed him in a live lineup in which he was one of two people wearing a baseball cap, and the only person with noticeable abnormalities to his teeth. The witness had described the perpetrator as an African-American man wearing a baseball cap with a gap in his teeth. Not surprisingly, he was selected from the lineup, and was convicted by a jury with no other evidence linking him to the crime.
What’s different about Mr. Beaver’s case is the nature of the crime for which he was convicted. In cases of carjacking and other similar offenses, it is very rare that testable DNA evidence is recovered from the crime scene, and thus it is similarly unlikely that those wrongfully convicted of similar crimes will have any hope of exoneration. However tenuous the foundation for the eyewitness evidence in the case, once a jury is convinced that the witness “will never forget that face,” the defendant’s fate is typically sealed. Mr. Beaver’s sole good fortune in his unfortunate case was that the real perpetrator was observed to have bled on the door of the car, and a sample of that blood was preserved and eventually tested, clearing Mr. Beaver from any involvement.
But Mr. Beaver’s case brings into focus an important fact that is often overlooked in discussions of DNA exonerations and the causes underlying wrongful convictions. While robberies rarely result in testable DNA evidence, they account for almost four times the number of arrests every year in the United States, as compared to rapes — where DNA is often available for testing. More to the point, in a study (PDF, see p. 530) that examined all known cases of misidentification prior to the advent of DNA testing, misidentifications in robbery cases outnumbered those in rapes by more than two to one. Since the advent of DNA testing, however, exonerees falsely accused of rape account for more than 20 times the number of those falsely accused of robbery.
The difference? Robbers don’t typically leave enough DNA at the crime scene for testing. But there’s no reason to think any fewer people are wrongfully convicted of robberies now than before the advent of DNA testing. In fact, if we assume the ratio of misidentifications in robbery cases as compared to rape cases hasn’t changed, and we make the (substantial) assumption that every person wrongfully convicted of rape between 1983 and 2003 was eventually exonerated, we are left to conclude that over 17 people per year are wrongfully convicted of robbery, or over 300 since 1989. In fact, only 6 of the exonerees between 1989 and 2003 were convicted of robbery. (See this Gross et al. article chronicling exonerations in the U.S., both pre-and post-DNA testing.) In the absence of DNA evidence to clear them and against the well-known force of a confident-but-wrong eyewitness at trial, their chances of walking free before their sentences are complete are small indeed.
All of this goes to illustrate that DNA is not enough to protect the innocent, because it only helps the “lucky” few. Which means that we need to focus on fixing the policies, procedures (PDF), and laws governing the collection and use of eyewitness evidence in criminal trials, and stop wrongful convictions before they happen in the first place.