Mistaken eyewitness accounts make up majority of wrongful convictions
BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) – A Gulfport man is fighting for justice after being wrongfully accused of a murder, despite video evidence showing he was more than an hour away at the time of the crime. Unfortunately, his case is one of many.
In 2015, Arthur Jones Jr. was charged by Hattiesburg police for a murder he didn’t commit. The strongest evidence presented against Jones in the arrest warrant affidavit was the eyewitness identification accounts identifying Jones as the shooter who killed 17-year-old Jabbarri Goudy.
Eyewitness accounts can often be wrong. Numerous studies and data show that mistaken identifications happen in the majority of cases where people are wrongfully convicted.
Inaccurate eyewitness identifications can confound investigations from the earliest stages, states the Innocence Project. Critical time is then lost while police are distracted from the real perpetrator, focusing instead on building a case against an innocent person.
Researchers cite several reasons as to why eyewitness accounts are not usually reliable, from the science behind what happens in the brain when a person sees something traumatic to the process by which in-person and photo lineups are shown to potential witnesses.
Criminologist Dr. Thomas Payne says eyewitness identification should only be one piece of the puzzle when it comes to investigating a crime.
“Eyewitness identification is just as good as any other evidence that you collect or information that you collect,” said Payne. “However, it can be wrong so you don’t rely strictly on eyewitness information. You corroborate. You use that information, but you always corroborate that information to make the determination of what the facts are.”
According to The Innocence Project, mistaken eyewitness identifications have contributed to approximately 69% of the more than 375 wrongful convictions in the United States that were overturned by post-conviction DNA evidence. A different study done in 2018 reports an overall wrongful conviction rate of about 6% in a general state prison population.
A separate 2017 study supported similar findings, reporting that more than 350 people – many of whom were serving lengthy prison sentences – have been exonerated after their own DNA was discovered to be incompatible with evidence long ago collected from the crime scene. In roughly 70% of these cases, misidentification by one or more eyewitnesses contributed significantly as evidence for conviction.
According to Payne, the number of those wrongly accused is likely more than the number of those wrongly convicted simply because an arrest requires a lesser burden of proof than a conviction.
Still, he believes AJ’s case was unique.
“It’s a very unusual set of circumstances that this individual had to go through,” he said. “It is obviously unfortunate, but it’s not something that occurs every day, and there are both constitutional and legal safeguards for individuals who are taken into custody.”
Procedural safeguards for eyewitness identification reform have been implemented in 25 states. Mississippi, however, is not one of them.
Advocates have been pushing to change the procedures taken during eyewitness identifications in hopes of ensuring accuracy and fairness throughout the process. Some of those reforms include utilizing a double-blind lineup, where neither the police nor the witness knows who the suspect is. Experts say this would help prevent inadvertent or unintentional cues to the eyewitness that could influence which suspect they pick. Another reform includes having the witness provide a confidence statement immediately after selecting a suspect from a lineup. This statement would be a measure of how confident the witness feels in their choice, noting whether or not there are any uncertainties.
Additionally, these reforms have been recognized by police, prosecutorial and judicial experience, as well as national justice organizations, including the National Institute of Justice and the American Bar Association.
Jones has filed suit against the Hattiesburg Police Department and Det. Neal Rockhold alleging false arrest, false imprisonment and denial of a speedy trial. Claiming his rights under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments were violated, Jones said he has suffered emotional distress, slander, negligence, malicious prosecution, abuse of process, and reckless disregard for his safety and well-being.
Rockhold’s attorney says his client will be found innocent since he is protected by qualified immunity, which protects a government official from individual liability unless the official violated a clearly established constitutional right. Namely, it’s often used as a defense to exonerate law enforcement officers.
“If you did something that most other law enforcement officers would have done under those facts and circumstances, then qualified immunity gives you as a law enforcement officer some immunity against suit,” explains Payne.
When determining whether or not a right was “clearly established,” Cornell Law School says courts consider whether a hypothetical reasonable official would have known that the defendant’s conduct violated the plaintiff’s rights. Courts conducting this analysis apply the law that was in force at the time of the alleged violation, not the law in effect when the court considers the case.
However, qualified immunity is not immunity from having to pay money damages, but rather immunity from having to go through the costs of a trial at all.
The City of Hattiesburg has since been partially dismissed from the lawsuit, meaning that they can still be held liable under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. A trial date has been set of Nov. 15, 2021 in the case against Rockhold.
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