Saturday, October 06, 2007

What's Your Alibi?

With yet more DNA based exonerations in the news where an eyewitness helped wrongfully convict an innocent person, it was timely to have polled Grits readers last week on the question, "If a serious crime were committed and you were falsely accused, would you have an alibi for last night?

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)
Why is this important? Because people can be falsely accused. And while DNA-based exonerations in old cases continue to make headlines, it happens a lot more often than just in those cases.

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?


Anonymous said...

This guy's name matched the alibi of a wanted man, so the cops arrested him and held him 37 days before a prosecutor at a pretrial hearing realized he wasn't the suspect -- didn't look like him, wrong height, wrong age. The cops never attempted to verify the man was who he said he was, and they didn't bother checking his alibi.

W W Woodward said...

Several years ago when I was working as a full time peace officer I watched as a young man jimmied a lock in an attempt to burglarize a schoolroom. The incident took place about 2:00AM in a darkened hallway. The suspect was about twenty feet away. When I "jacked" the slide of my shotgun and told him to freeze he screamed like a little girl and ran like a rabbit.

I was 99% sure of the teenager's identity, did not feel deadly force was necessary, and was laughing too hard to effectively chase him.

Since I was only 99% sure of the suspect's identity I did not seek a warrant but did watch him carefully for a few days until the actual burglar (a different individual)was apprehended in the same school building in the act three days later.

So much for eyeball witnesses.

JT Barrie said...

It's all about padding your credentials with positive stats. As the Apostle Paul and Jesus continually warned their followers: be wary of people whose main goal is to justify themselves above others. They have already gained their reward so they won't be rewarded by the father in heaven.
It's all about doing what is right and not what impresses others. It is so easy to see the motivations of those in the political arena. It is especially appalling to see people use Jesus' name to pad their credentials.

Anonymous said...

Jt – It is amazing how what Jesus had to say 2000 years ago still applies today. As people we have not changed. We still have the same motivations which are often not very pure. I wonder how many people are devastated by hidden agendas and self serving actions like we are seeing in the TYC mess.

Anonymous said...

A couple of weeks ago I had just arrived at a club and watched an older guy get hauled off by the Round Rock police for assault based on eye witness lies. He was attacked with pepper spray by a suspended security guard working at JOY illegally in Round Rock Texas. The older man would not take a taxi, the security guard chased him down and pepper sprayed him in the parking lot as he was leaving. The older guys truck then hit a stone wall. The older guy got out and told the idiot security person he was going to sue him for what he just did and wrecking his truck. This security man leaves and comes back with some people and tells them that hat man tried to run me down. Believing what he was saying they agreed to help. When the Round Rock police arrived they talked to all of them as a group, they all said the same thing based on what they were told, not what they saw. This left the older guy hanging with nothing but telling the cops what actually honestly happened. The cops refused to believe him. The guy was disabled and had no support. It was the sorriest thing I had ever seen. I was ashamed and decided to leave rather than entertain myself in that place. I told the cop as I left, this was a BS set up, that old guy did nothing wrong he was the one attacked. The cop said I have my statements do you have a problem with them. I said no just with you and drove off. I later called RRPD and explained what I saw happen. I hope that man was released.