Race Sometimes a Problem in Eyewitness IDs

Mark Sherman, AP, August 10, 2008

In the midst of being raped, Jennifer Thompson-Cannino told herself to pay attention to details that would allow her to identify her attacker.

She was able to give police in North Carolina a description that led to a sketch of the suspect. Then she identified a man from photographs, picked him out of a lineup and told jurors she was certain he was the rapist.

That man, Ronald Cotton, received a life sentence and spent more than 10 years in prison before DNA testing cleared him of the crime.

Now victim and the innocent man she helped convict are writing a book together.

Thompson-Cannino, who is white, had mistakenly picked out one black man; another was guilty of the crime.

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Since 1991, 218 people have been exonerated through DNA testing, and in more than three-quarters of the cases, mistaken eyewitness identifications were crucial in the wrongful convictions, according to The Innocence Project, a legal group that has sought genetic testing and led the charge to free innocent inmates.

Of those, nearly half, roughly seven dozen, involved a person of one race wrongly identifying someone of a different color.

Even people with training in law enforcement confront the difficulty of accurate identifications. Boston Police Sgt. Gregory Gallagher, who is white, identified Stephan Cowans, who was black, as the man who shot him twice with Gallagher’s own police-issue gun in 1997.

Several years later, testing on a sweat shirt, cap and glass that the suspect wore or touched ruled out Cowans as the shooter. His case was also plagued by misidentification of a fingerprint.

Cowans was released from prison after serving 5 1/2 years. He was found shot to death in his home last year.

The American Bar Association, meeting in New York, is considering whether to recommend that judges use their discretion to make juries aware of the problems that can plague cross-racial identifications.

California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Utah already employ such instructions in some cases.

“The majority race is not as good at identifying minorities as it is its own race. This is hard-wired in some way that we don’t completely understand. But the phenomenon should be presented to the jury,” said Barry Scheck, co-founder of The Innocence Project.

Prosecutors, however, do not want judges to raise the issue with juries.

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Some criminal justice experts believe that mistakes are so pervasive that nothing short of wholesale reforms in identification procedures will fix the problem.

This year, North Carolina became the first state to standardize identification procedures. That includes preventing the police officer who is investigating the crime from conducting photo identifications with witnesses and requiring that lineup photographs be shown one after another rather than in groups of six.

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