October 22, 2008
Rodney Ellis: Lowering odds that innocents end up in prison
The Dallas Morning News did the state a great service by investigating the causes of Dallas County's 19 DNA exonerations. While the cases involved men of different races and backgrounds, one thing remained the same in 95 percent of the cases – a mistaken eyewitness identification was the primary cause of the wrongful conviction.
Dallas isn't so different from the rest of the country. Of the 220 DNA exonerations nationally in the past two decades, 75 percent were due in part to a misidentification.
Who is responsible? Victims aren't. In the Dallas County cases, sexually assaulted women had the difficult task of identifying their attackers. These assaults may have occurred in the dark, by masked men or someone with a weapon. Under such terrifying conditions, "all of the mind's energy is channeled into the survival instinct," as psychologist Gary Wells noted in the series.
Police officers, in many cases, can't be blamed either. They have a tough job getting criminals off the streets as quickly as possible. Detectives may unintentionally provide cues to eyewitnesses or provide positive feedback when an identification is made.
Ultimately, the Texas Legislature, courts and local governments should take responsibility for wrongful convictions. We elected officials to ensure that police departments are adequately funded and officers are properly trained. We also must guarantee that impoverished people accused of crimes receive a quality defense. And the courts are ultimately responsible for ensuring that evidence is reliable, the innocent are freed and defendants' constitutional and due process rights are protected. [Mark Godsey]
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