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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Column: Testimony reliance unsettles U.S. courts

    For a country that advertises itself as a protector of liberty and a bastion of freedom, the U.S. incarcerates a staggering number of its own citizens. The current prison population in the U.S. is over 2 million, exceeding that of China. This statistic constitutes an astounding feat, given that the total population of China is more than four times that of the U.S.

    Moreover, the U.S. consistently incarcerates citizens at a higher rate than almost every other country in the world — including Iran, Russia and North Korea. Again, this fact makes a mockery out of the “fundamental” commitment to justice in the U.S.

    The most deeply troubling aspect of the overwhelming prison population is the following: the Innocence Project estimates that between 2.3 and 5 percent of prisoners in the U.S. were wrongfully convicted.

    Those percentages seem small? Let’s restate that in simpler terms.

    Between 40,000 and 100,000 U.S. prisoners are innocent, convicted and serving sentences for crimes they did not commit.

    Which aspects of our criminal justice system created this massive injustice? Certainly, it is the result of many factors. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws, for instance, establish the minimum number of years a defendant must serve in prison for being convicted of a specific crime. Such laws often cause innocent defendants to plead guilty, because the consequences of losing at trial are devastating.

    Furthermore, defendants who cannot afford top-tier lawyers may receive inadequate council, government officials may act unethically and forensic evidence may be faulty.

    All of these issues could send an innocent person to prison, especially one who is black or Hispanic and thus susceptible to the consequences of institutionalized racism.

    The single greatest cause of wrongful convictions, however, is faulty eyewitness testimony. We tend to uphold eyewitnesses as infallible sources of evidence in criminal cases. Yet, according to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentifications have accounted for 72 percent of convictions later overturned by DNA evidence nationwide.

    Elizabeth Loftus, professor of social ecology at the University of California, Irvine, has conducted extensive research regarding what she describes as “false memories.”

    In a presentation at the James E. Rogers College of Law on Oct. 22, Loftus explained it is easy for memories to be altered, or even fabricated, by various social influences. She went on to describe how the human memory, highly susceptible to manipulation, can negatively impact trial outcomes. A witness might incorrectly remember an event, causing them to offer false, misleading and potentially damaging testimony. Loftus noted that misidentifications are particularly prevalent in cross-racial testimonies where a white witness must identify a black defendant or vice versa.

    “Loftus’ research shows how faulty memory can be a cause of wrongful convictions,” said Christopher Robertson, associate professor at the College of Law. “Even the defendants sometimes sincerely believe that they committed the crimes and confess to doing so, even though genetic information later shows that this is false.”

    Immediate action should be taken to reduce the number of eyewitness misidentifications in criminal cases. The Innocence Project recommends a number of reforms, including increasing access to DNA testing during trial and mandating that witnesses sign “confidence statements,” in which they would explicitly articulate their level of confidence in their identification.

    Such procedural modifications might help rectify the unconscionable deprivation of freedom being manifested by a judicial system that is supposed to administer justice.

    Ultimately, it is the courts’ responsibility to implement changes to reduce the level of emphasis placed on eyewitness testimonies during criminal cases. After all, as Loftus eloquently stated, “Memory, like liberty, is a fragile thing.”

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    Elizabeth Hannah is a neuroscience and cognitive sciences sophomore. Follow her on Twitter. 

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