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The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony

Problem with Eyewitness Testimony

If you’ve never heard of Uriah Courtney, his story will likely shock you. At 25 years old, California native Uriah Courtney was charged with raping a 16-year-old girl. A jury convicted him, and the judge sent him to prison for life. At just 26 years old, Uriah was sure to spend the rest of his life behind bars.

The only problem? Uriah was innocent.

In a world where scientific advances seem to happen every day, it is difficult to believe that a person could be sent to jail for life for a crime he didn’t commit.

Despite what you see on television, where evidence gathering techniques are portrayed as highly scientific and nearly irrefutable, modern-day convictions rely primarily on eyewitness testimony. In fact, unreliable eyewitness testimony is the leading cause of wrongful convictions. According to the national Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification was a factor in 73 percent of cases overturned by DNA evidence.

That’s what happened to Uriah Courtney. With statistics like that, it could happen to anyone.

Eyewitness Testimony Is Frequently Unreliable

In 2013, Uriah Courtney was exonerated of the crime of rape. The California Innocence Project, which is affiliated with a network of organizations devoted to overturning wrongful convictions, was instrumental in obtaining his release. When Uriah was arrested in 2004, DNA techniques were not as advanced as those used in subsequent years. The Innocence Project worked with the San Diego District Attorney’s Office to test the victim’s clothing for additional DNA samples. The results returned a positive match for a man living just three miles from where the victim was assaulted.

When the victim examined Uriah in a lineup immediately after the crime had occurred, she stated she was 80 percent positive Uriah was her assailant. At trial, however, she declared she was 100 percent certain of her identification. Although she never explained the 20 percent jump in certainty, the jury convicted an innocent man.

Our criminal justice system places a great deal of importance on eyewitness testimony. First-person observers are generally perceived as credible, competent witnesses. But the human mind is not a recording device like a camera or video-recorder, and it is heavily influenced by stress, suggestion, and time. Memory decay, adrenaline, and stress all compromise a person’s ability to recall events with reliable clarity. In Uriah’s case, the victim relied on her recollection of her attacker’s vehicle – which matched one owned by Uriah’s stepfather – to identify Uriah in a lineup.

Ultimately, Uriah Courtney walked away a free man, but not until he had spent eight years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.

Indiana Criminal Defense

The conviction and exoneration of Uriah Courtney demonstrates the fundamental tenant of our criminal justice system: defendants are innocent until proven guilty – with an emphasis on “proven.” If you have been accused of a crime, you need an experienced criminal defense lawyer on your side. Call Razumich Law, P.C. today at 317-989-1129 for a free consultation.

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