Fingerprints, Eye Witnesses and Arson Investigations all Subject to Scrutiny
A recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer explores the potential problems with evidence used in criminal trials. The article explores several forms of evidence including eye witness testimony, fingerprints and arson investigation techniques.
According to the Inquirer, the legal challenges around the country are an outgrowth of the revolutionary impact of DNA testing, which has freed 267 prisoners nationwide, including 10 in Pennsylvania and five in New Jersey.
Eyewitness testimony was a factor in the convictions of 75 percent of those exonerated through DNA testing, according to the New York-based Innocence Project. Faulty forensic evidence contributed to 50 percent of the convictions. The project said that 25 percent of the defendants later found innocent had confessed or pleaded guilty, and that jailhouse informants were a factor in 15 percent of the overturned cases, reported the Inquirer.
The Inquirer suggested that eye witness evidence, always thought to be the gold standard of evidence, can be influenced by the race of the alleged offender and witness, use of weapons, time elapse between offense and testimony and trauma. The article laments that Pennsylvania does not permit the challenge of an eye witness by expert testimony.
Fingerprints long accepted as conclusive evidence of guilt are being challenged.In a recent Philadelphia case an attorney cited 21 cases of mistaken identifications by print examiners since 1990, including a Delaware County murder case in which a defendant, jailed for two years, was freed after a panel of experts agreed that his fingerprint was not at the crime scene, reported the Inquirer.
Arson investigations are another area of concern. A National Academy of Sciences report found serious deficiencies in how fire investigators decide whether a fire had been intentionally set. In Texas, Cameron Willingham was convicted of murder and executed for the deaths of his three young children as the result of an arson.
Willingham's case gained national attention in 2009 when an article in The New Yorker examined the arson investigation through experts and demonstrated that, contrary to the claims of the prosecution, there was no evidence that the house fire was intentionally set.
Pennsylvania convened a wrongful conviction committee which is expected to proposed that all confessions obtained by police be video taped, police departments implement a new lineup procedure and that the state create a forensic board to set standards for evidence analysis in Pennsylvania.
To read more: http://articles.philly.com/2011-03-21/news/29171675_1_dna-testing-wrongful-convictions-validity/4