60 Minutes aired a great story on last night’s show concerning the increasing problems related to the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Leslie Stahl interviewed Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton, both of North Carolina, whose lives are forever connected by Thompson’s misidentification of Cotton as her rapist. After serving eleven years in prison, DNA evidence finally exonerated Cotton and identified the real rapist, a man already in prison but who had tragically raped more women before he was finally caught.
Stahl tells viewers that of the approximately 230 DNA exonerations in this country in recent years, 75% of them were falsely identified by an eyewitness. She explores how susceptible memory is to suggestion and demonstrates how easy it is for our memories to be wrong.
When Barry Scheck testified to the Tennessee Death Penalty Study Committee, he spent a good deal of time discussing the issue of false eyewitness identification. Clark McMillan, whose innocence was proven through DNA testing, was wrongfully convicted in Tennessee largely due to mistaken identification. Scheck encouraged the Committee to look into the reforms on eyewitness id procedures, supported by 25 years of research, called for by leading experts. Many of these reforms have been enacted in states like New Jersey, North Carolina, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Unfortunately, no law is currently in place in Tennessee that guides law enforcement to use scientifically supported procedures shown to reduce such mistaken identifications.
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