Troy Davis Case Spotlights Eyewitness Fallibility, Drives Georgia Reform Effort

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has a story today on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony, in connection with the ongoing Troy Davis case. The article highlights the systemic problem of wrongful convictions resulting from faulty eyewitness testimony, including all six DNA exonerations in Georgia over the last eight years, all of which resulted from inaccurate eyewitness evidence.

To explore the laundry list of problems with the eyewitness evidence in Mr. Davis’ case, the defense team hired cognitive psychologist and eyewitness expert Dr. Jeffrey Neuschatz. Needless to say, he “found numerous concerns with the identification of Davis as the man who fatally shot Officer Mark Allen MacPhail in a Burger King parking lot on a summer night in Savannah.”

Whether or not Neuschatz’s analysis will be enough to sway the Board of Pardons and Paroles to permanently stay Mr. Davis’ death sentence remains an open question.

Neuschatz’s report has been filed with both the parole board and in Davis’ court appeals for a new trial. Neuschatz analyzed the eyewitness identifications using contemporary standards to determine if there were flaws in the procedures used to implicate Davis.

Among other factors, Neuschatz highlighted issues present in the Davis case relating to the “mugshot effect (PDF) and the “weapon-focus” effect:

Neuschatz concluded that one witness, Dorothy Lee Ferrell, told police she had seen Davis’ picture on the news as a suspect in MacPhail’s slaying. “Prior exposure to the suspect’s picture increases the likelihood that the suspect will be picked out of the lineup,” Neuschatz wrote.

Neuschatz also made other observations, including: When a weapon is involved in a crime, witnesses tend to focus on it, rather than the suspect; the passage of time, in many cases 10 days, between the crime and the identification of Davis. Another witness testified that he had been drinking on the night of the shooting.

The Davis case has also given momentum to an ongoing effort to reform police procedures in Georgia relating to the collection of eyewitness evidence. Following the sixth DNA exoneration in Georgia earlier this year, by which Willie Williams was released from prison after serving 21 years for a rape he didn’t commit, state Rep. Stephanie Stuckey Benfield (D-Atlanta) attempted to get a bill passed that would have required Georgia police to use procedures that have been demonstrated to make eyewitness evidence more reliable. Predictably, prosecutors fought the legislation, and for now, managed to win the day.

Despite the legislative loss, House Speaker Glenn Richardson supports the reforms, and appointed Rep. Benfield to chair a committee to investigate the connection between flawed police identification procedures and the systemic wrongful conviction problem in the state. Hearings are scheduled for the fall, where Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, among others, is expected to testify.

The Georgia Innocence Project, which has played a role in three of the state’s exonerations, is promoting lineup standards.

“In all six of those [Georgia] cases, the victims, and sometimes witnesses as well, incorrectly identified the attackers,” said Lisa George, spokeswoman for the project. “It’s not that these victims or witnesses were lying; it’s just that they got it wrong. Human memory is extremely fallible.”

Predictably, Rick Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys’ Council of Georgia, said “prosecutors don’t object to better standards for lineups, but they don’t want them codified into state law.” In other words, Georgia prosecutors support preventing the conviction of innocent people in theory, just not in practice.

Fortunately, cases like those of Mr. Davis and Mr. Williams are driving the effort to reform police procedures that are unmistakably linked to mistaken eyewitness testimony, and inform those procedures with well-settled scientific findings that reveal a better, more reliable methodology that is less likely to distort the memories of well-meaning witnesses. It’s time for Georgia prosecutors to catch up, and stop standing in the way of efforts to keep innocent people out of prison.

In related news, check out Emory Law School’s new project to Save Troy Davis, sponsored by their Indigent Criminal Defense Clinic.

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