Witness Mistakes Costly for Accused

Law: Inconsistencies in victim’s statements don’t prevent the lengthy jailing of man.
Los Angeles Times, Sep. 2, 2002
http://www.latimes.com/
By ANNA GORMAN

In an era when death row inmates are being exonerated by DNA evidence, the 89 days Louie Gomez spent in County Jail for a crime he did not commit may not sound like much.

It took the justice system that long to recognize troubling inconsistencies in the robbery case against Gomez, and for the victim’s identification of him to fall apart, costing the Los Angeles man two jobs and three months of his life.

“I told them, ‘I’m not a thief.’ They didn’t believe me,” Gomez said. “They were wrong, but as long as the lady said it was me, that’s all it took.”

The case, which ended in Gomez’s exoneration on Aug. 8, illustrates how vulnerable people can be to mistaken identification by witnesses. Misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions, said UC Irvine professor Elizabeth Loftus, who has researched the topic extensively.

Of 110 people nationwide exonerated by post-conviction DNA testing, about three-fourths were wrongfully convicted due to witness misidentification, Iowa State University professor Gary Wells said. Yet the system continues to rely on eyewitness testimony, which is often flawed because the memory is unpredictable.

“While these DNA exoneration cases have gotten strong attention focused on the problem of human memory, we still have a ways to go,” Loftus said.

The risk of misidentification increases if the suspect is a different race from the victim, if the witness is under stress or if the upper part of the face is concealed. And as soon as a misidentification is made, it tends to stick, Wells said. “It becomes the memory,” he said. “And there’s nothing that can really reverse it in their mind.”

In fact, Lilia Javier says she still believes it was Gomez who pushed something sharp against her ribs April 8 in a grocery store parking lot on Huntington Drive in Los Angeles. Javier said she is upset that Gomez was declared innocent and released from jail. “But what can I do? Nothing.”
[…more…]

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday September 3, 2002.
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