Imagine losing 19 years of your life for a crime you did not commit. That was one man’s reality until being exonerated and released last week.
John Edward Smith was convicted of murdering a man in a 1993 drive-by shooting in a gang-laden area of Los Angeles after a single eyewitness identified Smith as the gunman. Prosecutors now believe that eyewitness was lying, prompting a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to overturn Smith’s conviction.
All along, Smith maintained his innocence. He repeatedly told authorities that he had spent the night at his grandmother’s house at the time of the shooting. Despite the fact that the prosecution only had one eyewitness, Smith was convicted.
The Problem With Eyewitness Testimony
The Smith case is the latest in a series of cases now being overturned whose convictions were based on eyewitness testimony. In most instances, DNA evidence is largely responsible for an individual’s release.
In addition to the advances of laboratory science, studies are now increasingly casting doubt on the reliability of eyewitness testimony. Once considered the gold standard of evidence, research has revealed that human memory may be much more malleable than previously thought.
According to the Innocence Project, over 300 people have been freed due to DNA evidence. Eyewitness testimony was behind 75 percent of those convictions. Unfortunately, DNA evidence is not available in many situations, so the problem of witnesses making mistaken identifications is still a problem.
Many of misidentifications are made during the line-up process. Studies have shown many witnesses are influenced by the person conducting the line-up. Even if police officers do not intend to influence the witness, they may unconsciously do so.
Scientist have suggested “blind” lineups as a way to avoid this unintentional bias and many police departments have adopted them. The California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice has recommended that the Los Angeles Police Department adopt this process, which it initially supported until the L.A. County District Attorney’s office publicly opposed a pilot program.
Our law firm, which is made up of former prosecutors, frequently handles complex criminal cases. For more information on our Riverside and San Bernardino criminal defense law practice please visit our website.
Source: www.cbsnews.com, “John Edward Smith, former Calif. Gang member, exonerated of murder after 19 years in prison,” Crimesider, 25 September 2012 and www.innocenceproject.org, “The Case for ‘Blind’ Lineups,” Barry C. Scheck and Karen A. Newirth, 17 September 2012