I was particularly pleased when Fark linked to this blog post discussing the survey topic, so hundreds of extra people answered the question. Given the neutral nature of the query and the large number of respondents (1,366, compared to 425 in Grits' last reader poll), I'd guess these numbers fall pretty close to what the results would be in a valid scientific survey instrument. I wouldn't normally make that claim about a blog poll, but the ideology of the reader doesn't matter here, and the numbers were surprisingly consistent throughout the week.
So what were the results? Do Grits readers have an alibi? Readers answered:
- Yes: 55.7% (761)
- No: 19.3% (264)
- Part of the evening: 25.0% (341)
In August I wrote about a Galveston man who was falsely accused by a victim who identified his picture from a photo array. Problem was, he was working on an offshore oil rig the whole time, with cameras, witnesses and transportation logs to prove it. As I wrote then:
Three pieces of evidence - his work logs, DNA, and the fact that his tattoo didn't match the witness' description - should have told any reasonable investigator that Parish didn't commit this crime. Aundre Parish spent months in jail accused of a rape he didn't commit for two reasons: Faulty eyewitness identification procedures encouraged a victim to falsely accuse him, then the justice system took the word of the eyewitness - the victim, in this case - over hard evidence in their possession that contradicted her word.So what if Mr. Parish wasn't among the 55.7% who could provide rock-solid alibis? (And his was about as solid as I could imagine, and they still arrested him.) What if Mr. Parish on the night in question had fallen into that 19.3% who couldn't prove to a certainty where they were, and there had been no DNA evidence to match? My guess, with the victim sitting in the witness stand pointing her finger saying, "It was him," there's an overwhelming chance he would have been convicted.
Faulty eyewitness testimony is the leading national cause of wrongful convictions, and researchers have developed evidence-based best practices for lineups and witness identification procedures that no Texas departments presently follow. (Dallas has announced it will begin to try new methods, and I'm still hoping they do a good job with their experiment.)
Sure, looking at the poll numbers, most people had alibis most of the time on the night in question. But 19% had no alibi at all, and a quarter of respondents might be accused during a period when they couldn't fully account for their whereabouts.
Eyewitness testimony can be very reliable when the witness previously knew or had seen the person they're identifying. "I know Joe. We go to school together. I saw Joe rob the store," is a very reliable eyewitness, all else being equal (no motive to lie, etc.). A witness, with certitude, accusing an offender in open court can be one of the most powerful and dramatic types evidence juries hear, and eyewitnesses often swing the outcome of cases.
But when faulty lineup procedures are used or eyewitness testimony about strangers is given more credence than contradicting physical evidence, law enforcement runs a high risk of convicting an innocent person. Perhaps when the witness didn't previoiusly know the person they're identifying, the Code of Criminal Procedure should be modified to require corroboration to convict based their testimony?