TN rape case brings up reliance on witnesses vs. science, pt. 1

| Jan 20, 2017 | Uncategorized

What are 31 years of your life worth? We ask because a Tennessee man spent that much time in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. He was accused and convicted of rape when he was a young man, age 22. After growing more than three decades older in prison, the man was freed due to DNA evidence.

Is so-called “freedom” enough? While it is surely the most important aspect of the man’s life, he continues to fight for more. Being let out of prison and paid a reported $75 for his troubles just hasn’t added up to the closure that the wrongfully imprisoned man seeks. He fights to receive $1 million from the state for his loss. 

Simply put, that is what his wrongful incarceration was: a great loss. He lost more than half of his life to a rape conviction that shouldn’t have happened. The victim in the Tennessee sex crimes case identified the man as her attacker; though DNA evidence would prove decades later that her testimony was unreliable. 

DNA and other forensic evidence isn’t always available, including in sex assault cases. Certain helpful technologies didn’t exist in the past that might have helped a defendant’s case. Therefore, in most criminal cases a court will rely or relied heavily on other forms of evidence, including eyewitness testimony.

Logic would tell most that a victim is likely to recognize and be able to identify her alleged attacker. Case after case in Tennessee, however, proves that such identification not only by eyewitnesses but also victims can be dangerously faulty. We know what the danger is: wrongful convictions and incarceration. But why is eyewitness and victim testimony commonly faulty?

We will continue this topic in upcoming posts by discussing some of the psychology and research behind unreliable eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.