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Blind Justice: When Can Mistaken Eye Witness Testimony Send You to Jail?

For the past two years Lawrence Williams has sat in jail for a crime he did not commit. In 2010, a jury concluded that Mr. Williams and an unknown accomplice shot a robbery victim in the shoulder for not handing over a gold chain. The judge sentenced him to ten years in prison, but Mr. Williams had his conviction overturned in October 2012 when a special investigation by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office revealed that he had been the victim of mistaken eyewitness testimony.

According to studies done by the Innocence Project, “eye witness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in nearly 75% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.” For police investigations, however, eyewitness testimony becomes a sought after prize in solving the crime. Typically the police will ask witnesses to select the alleged criminal from a police lineup, which can be conducted with suspects behind a one-way mirror, photo books arrays or sketches. The witness is then asked to make a formal statement, confirm conclusions and add in any other details they remember. This type of testimony becomes the backbone of many criminal cases, and jurors place great weight on eyewitness testimony in determining guilt.

Scientific studies have questioned the validity of eyewitness testimony due to the inherent nature of mistakes in recollection. In the article Why Science Tells Us Not to Rely on Eye Witness Accounts, Doctor Elizabeth F. Loftus of the University of California says that most people believe their memory works like a video recorder, capturing images as they are. In truth, the mind works more like a box of puzzle pieces being put together.

In piecing together memories people often take mental shortcuts to make the pieces fit, which can result in mistaken eyewitness identification. In the case of Mr. Williams, such problems were present from the outset:

  • The victim, Alberto Ortiz, told police “word on the street” was that a man named “Lawrence Williams” had shot him;
  • Based on the alleged street gossip, Police arranged a photo lineup of men with that name from which Mr. Ortiz picked a photo of Mr. William who had a similar hairstyle (corn rows) to his attacker;
  • Surveillance video did not show the faces of the attackers; and
  • A T-shirt recovered near the scene of the crime contained the DNA of prisoner Taevon Hutchinson who later confessed to the crime, but did not testify at the trial.

Mr. Williams experienced firsthand the blindness of justice and lost two years of his life in jail, away from his family, for a crime he did not commit. An experienced New York criminal defense law firm fights to preserve the rights of its clients and keep them out of situations like this one.

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