Friday, March 20, 2015

The wrong guy: Witness misidentification leads to wrongful convictions

Angel Gonzalez was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was driving the wrong vehicle.

Were it not for his 1979 Cadillac sedan, Gonzalez probably would have never become a suspect in a 1994 rape at an apartment complex in Waukegan. Gonzalez spent nearly 21 years in prison for the crime, until DNA evidence proved his innocence earlier this month.

He was released from prison on March 10, thanks in part to the Illinois Innocence Project, which is celebrating its second exoneration in less than a month.

Gonzalez’s case illustrates a common problem in the justice system: eyewitness misidentification often leads to the wrong person being punished.

The Illinois Innocence Project worked with the national Innocence Project on Gonzalez’s case, and on April 8, IIP is bringing two people who are leading a national campaign for reforming the justice system to Springfield.

Barry Scheck helped found the Innocence Project in 1992, making him one of the forefathers of the innocence movement in the United States. According to the National Registry of Exonerations maintained by the University of Michigan Law School, there have been 1,565 exonerations in the U.S. since 1989, many of them prompted by groups following Scheck’s lead.

His work served as the inspiration for the creation of the Illinois Innocence Project, founded in 2001.

The Illinois Innocence Project earned the release of Christopher Abernathy in February.

The two groups worked together to free Angel Gonzalez in early March after DNA evidence proved his innocence.

Fundamental flaws Eyewitness misidentification like in Gonzalez’s case is a leading cause of wrongful convictions, according to a tally of cases kept by the national Innocence Project.

Of the first 325 exonerations by DNA evidence in the United States, 235 of the wrongful convictions – greater than 72 percent – were caused by eyewitness misidentification.

In July 1984, a 22-year-old white college student named Jennifer Thompson was attacked and raped at knifepoint in her apartment by a young black man in Burlington, North Carolina. She was terrified as police later lined up seven men in front of her – separated by nothing more than a table – in a suspect lineup.

Although the police specifically said she needn’t feel compelled to pick a suspect and that her rapist might not even be in the lineup, Thompson assumed that he must be there.

Thompson selected Ron Cotton, who wound up spending 11 years in prison before DNA evidence cleared him in June 1995.

Two years after Cotton’s exoneration, Thompson contacted him to apologize, and the two became friends. They now speak at rallies against wrongful convictions, and their book, Picking Cotton, reached The New York Times’ best-seller list in 2009.

Thompson and Cotton are scheduled to speak at the Illinois Innocence Project’s Eighth Annual Defenders of the Innocent event in Springfield on April 8, 2015.

This story appeared online in the Illinois Times on March 19, 2015.