Alex Massie Alex Massie

Your Lying Eyes

I don’t know, just as you don’t know, whether Troy Davis is innocent. I do suspect that his conviction would, in this country, be considered unsafe. Not that this, or anything else, matters to the Georgia Board of Pardons who have denied Davis’s last appeal for clemency. No-one should be surprised by that. Nevertheless, the case highlights a major problem in criminal trials: eye-witness testimony is often unreliable. According to the University of Virginia’s Brandon Garrett:

The federal court that finally reviewed evidence of Davis’ innocence agreed “this case centers on eyewitness testimony.” Yet that court put to one side the fact that seven of the nine witnesses at the trial have now recanted, and new witnesses have implicated another man. The court did so while failing to carefully examine how eyewitnesses ultimately came to identify Davis as the man who shot a police officer intervening in a fight at a Burger King parking lot. The Troy Davis case—which raises a wide array of flaws in our death penalty system, our post-conviction system, and the politics of criminal justice—is thus also a case about malleability of eyewitness memory and police misconduct.

[…] Police have so utterly contaminated the evidence, and so much has since come to light, that there is not much of the case against him left standing—one could not imagine a jury convicting him today, much less sentencing him to death. Reading through his trial materials, I was reminded time and time again of what I saw when I read trials of the first 250 people exonerated by DNA tests, when researching my book Convicting the Innocent. (There is no physical evidence to test in Davis’ case.) Of the 190 DNA exonerees who had been convicted based on eyewitness testimony, nearly all the cases had eyewitnesses who were positive at trial that the defendant was the person they saw.

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