Following a study published in the journal Science analyzing reasons for false convictions, columnist Rick Casey proposes this test for Houston police and prosecutors in this morning's Houston Chronicle:
"An analysis was done of 86 criminal convictions that DNA evidence later found to be wrong. Please rank the factors most often found to have contributed to the wrongful convictions:•Incompetent defense lawyers.
•False testimony by forensic scientists.
•Errors in scientific testing.
•False testimony by lay witnesses.
"If you ranked false confessions last, you are right. But did you guess 17 percent of the cases, nearly one in five, featured false confessions? That percentage tied with false testimony by lay witnesses.
"If you ranked eyewitness errors first, you were also right. Erroneous eyewitness accounts showed up in a stunning 71 percent of these cases. ...
"[F]ully 63 percent of the cases featured errors of forensic science. What's more, in 27 percent of the cases forensic scientists gave false or misleading testimony."
So, according to this study, misidentification by witnesses and bad forensic science are the most common reasons innocent people go to prison. Requiring corroboration for eyewitnesses' testimony (when they had no prior relationship with the defendant) would go a long way toward resolving the former, but in an era when even fingerprint evidence is coming under fire, the latter will require expensive, substantive reforms.