Eyewitness testimony often unreliable yet widely used to win convictions

(KCTV5 News)
Updated: Sep. 30, 2021 at 9:45 PM CDT
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KANSAS CITY, MO (KCTV) — Kevin Strickland’s case has drawn nationwide attention because he’s spent 43 years in prison for a triple murder he swears he didn’t commit.

Strickland was largely convicted on eyewitness testimony.

That witness was shot the night the three men were murdered, but she survived. She identified Strickland in a lineup as the shooter, but later had doubts and tried to help Strickland before she died, unrelated to events from the night of the murders. She sent an email to the Midwest Innocence Project.

“I am seeking info on how to help someone that was wrongfully accused,” she wrote in the email.

Jean Peters Baker openly apologized to Strickland after her conviction integrity unit reviewed his case. She’s now fighting for his release under a new state law that allows her to take old cases back to court.

“It’s a great deal of pain in here, you know? Of knowin’ what I done missed out on and my opportunities in life. You know, family,” Strickland said during a jail interview. “I’m trying to pick my words because I don’t want to offend anybody, but I’m hurtin’.”

Why eyewitnesses get it wrong

Tricia Rojo Bushnell is the executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project. She eyewitnesses mean well, and want to help in solving a crime, but trauma affects memory.

“I think there’s a common conception, that we now know is a misconception, that if someone sees a crime, they would be able to identify the person who committed it,” said Bushnell.

Survivors and witnesses may focus on the gun, but not a face. But they may feel pressure to do something to help, but it can lead to terrible mistakes.

In the last nine out of 10 Missouri cases where DNA proved a prisoner was innocent, eyewitness testimony was part of the wrongful conviction. And yet, eyewitness testimony is very compelling on court.

It’s estimated that nationwide, about 70 percent of all wrongful convictions are blamed on witness misidentifications.

Once convicted, it’s difficult to right a wrong.

Lamar Johnson was convicted of murdering a friend. It was dark the night of the murder, and the killer wore a full-face mask. Still, a witness fingered Johnson as the killer.

“I kept saying ‘I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it. This is where I was,” he said.

Even the real gunmen say Johnson wasn’t at the location of the shooting that night. And the current prosecutor reviewed the case and believes Johnson is innocent. Still, he sits in jail.

It’s the same for Chris Dunn. He is serving life plus 40 after two witnesses, aged 12 and 14 identified him as the killer. Both have recanted and admitted they lied.

In an affidavit, the then 12-year-old who is now an adult said, “we decided that we would both testify that is was Christopher Dunn who killed Recco. The truth is that we did not know who shot at us and killed Recco.”

The then 14-year-old in his affidavit said, “I lied on Chris Dunn to save myself.”

LaMonte McIntyre was freed after serving 23 years for a crime he didn’t commit. An eyewitness in his case says she was pressured and threatened by the prosecutor. Upon his release, McIntyre hugged her with forgiveness.

“It’s over with you. Let that go,” McIntyre told her. “I forgave you a long time ago. I’m sorry you were in the position.”

Innocence projects and defense attorneys are advocating for reforms, and more than half of all states have enacted some measures to reduce the number of misidentifications. Kansas is among them, but not Missouri.

Those reforms include using a double blind lineup meaning the officer administering the lineup doesn’t know who the suspect is either; let the eyewitness know the suspect may or may not be present and the investigation will continue no matter what; use better fillers that closely match the suspect; have the witness give a confidence statement in how confident they are regarding their selection and lineups should be documented.

Even though Missouri has yet to enact reforms, the Kansas City, Missouri Police Department has. In fact, they worked with the Midwest Innocence Project to help ensure eyewitness identifications are accurate.