Eyewitness Reliability And Troy Davis Part II

Yesterday, I wrote that, by taking up the Perry v. New Hampshire case, the Supreme Court had acknowledged the ongoing problem of unreliable eyewitnesses testifying in our courts.  Thousands of studies have reiterated that eyewitness testimony is a particularly untrustworthy form of evidence. But after reading accounts like this one of yesterday’s oral arguments in that case, it appears that, even if the Justices recognize this problem, they don’t think it matters much.

In fact, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that letting any unreliable evidence into trials doesn’t matter too much, because juries will sort it all out.  The Justices have in their hands an expert affidavit from the American Psychological Association that explicitly states: “juries tend to ‘over believe’ eyewitness testimony”. But the Court still seemed to oppose what Justice Kennedy called “invading the province of the jury.”


Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony: What We Learned From Troy Davis

Brenda Forrest, one of the jurors who convicted Troy Davis and sentenced him to death, told CNN that in 1991 she believed: “He was definitely guilty.  All of the witnesses, they were able to I.D. him as the person who actually did it.”

justice scalesHowever, years after the trial, Forrest backtracked as the case against Davis began to unravel, and went on to say that, knowing what she knows now about the witness recantations,  she would have voted to acquit Davis of the crime for which he was put to death September 21.

Eyewitnesses do seem credible to jurors.  After all, they were there.  And back in 1991 when Troy Davis’ fate was being decided, eyewitnesses seemed credible to courts too.  Not so much any more.  Decades of studies have exposed how shaky human memory is, and how little eyewitness evidence should be trusted. Ironically, for Davis, this meant that a form of evidence deemed reliable enough to convict him in 1991 was considered too untrustworthy in 2010 to be considered “clear and convincing” proof of his innocence.