Posts Tagged ‘eyewitness misidentification’

Exoneration Anniversary: Derrick Williams

Taylor Thornton — April 04, 2018 @ 11:54 AM — Comments (0)

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Happy 7 year exoneration anniversary Derrick Williams!!

In March of 1993 Derrick Williams was found guilty of kidnapping, sexual battery, robbery, grand theft auto, two counts of battery and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences in prison. Williams’ conviction was based strongly on the misidentification of the victim in court.

The victim was attacked inside of her car in her driveway in Palmetto, Florida at 6pm on August 6, 1992. The attacker drove the victim to an orange grove where she was raped, robbed, and beaten before she managed to escape. When the victim worked with police to create a composite sketch, one officer thought that the sketch looked like Derrick Williams. The officer recognized Derrick from his acquittal in a very similar 1981 case of abduction and rape in a Florida orange grove. Williams’ photo was placed in a photo lineup where the victim identified him and she subsequently identified him in a live lineup. Despite his alibi which was corroborated by many witnessed brought by the defense, and the holes in the prosecution’s case, Derrick Williams was convicted on March 19, 1993.

Following his conviction, with the help of the Innocence Project of Florida, Derrick was able to request DNA testing of a shirt that the attacker had worn and later used to cover the victim’s face during the attack. The t-shirt was found in the victim’s backseat after the incident. Despite the negligent destruction of much of the physical evidence in Williams’ case by incineration, they were able to test sweat and skin cells on the collar of the t-shirt. These tests were able to exclude Williams as a possible contributor of this DNA. The Innocence Project of Florida filed a motion for post conviction relief based on the new DNA evidence and the unlawful destruction of exculpatory by the police. Following a two day evidentiary hearing Derrick Williams was granted a new trial on March 29, 2011. On April 4, 2011 the prosecution dismissed the charges and Derrick Williams was released.

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Reasons for Exoneration: Witness Misidentification

Victoria Inzana — November 14, 2017 @ 10:48 AM — Comments (0)

In the past Reasons for Exoneration posts, we have focused on perjury and false accusations. These statements are typically made by a witness in an intentionally malicious manner. However, this is not always the case. These statements are known as a mistaken witness identification. According to Innocence Project research, eyewitness misidentification is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful conviction. It has been found to have had a hand in wrongfully convicting about 70% of exonerees.

Despite the fact that research has proven that the human mind does not record events exactly as we see them, or recall them in exact chronological order, courts tend to find witness identifications to be very persuasive. This is why it makes up such a large percentage of wrongful convictions.

Some witness misidentification cases that the Innocence Project has worked on include a witness in a rape case being shown a photo array where the photograph of the suspect was the only photograph was marked with an “R”. Other cases include witnesses who “thought” the person “might be” the perpetrator when later, at trial, the jury was told that the witness had never wavered in their identification.

Because witness identification can be quite unreliable, there are many reforms which could be adopted to make it more accurate. Several procedures have been shown to significantly decrease the number of misidentifications such as:

  • Double- Blind/Blinded administration, where the officer administering the lineup is unaware of who the suspect is
  • A proper lineup composition, where the non-suspects in the lineup resemble the eyewitness’ description of the perpetrator, and the suspect appears similar to the fillers so he is not the only one of his race or facial hair
  • Standard Instructions, where the person viewing the lineup should be told that the perpetrator may or may not be in the lineup at that the investigation will continue regardless of the lineup result
  • Confidence Statements, which is a document that law enforcement will collect regarding the level of confidence the witness has in the identification made at the same time the identification is made.
  • Finally, a recording of procedures should be done whenever possible.


So far, 21 states and multiple jurisdictions have implemented these reforms.

The Innocence Project of Florida, partnering with the Innocence Project headquarters in New York, was also able to successfully pass a bill in April 2017 to reform eyewitness misidentification error here in the Florida Legislature. There is now a requirement that lineups are conducted using a double-blind or blinded procedure, and witnesses are instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be present. Should these practices be omitted, a court can consider noncompliance when deciding whether the identification can be admitted into evidence. The court must also instruct the jury that it consider whether law enforcement followed the eyewitness procedures when determining the reliability of a witness’s identification.

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Two Men Cleared of Rape by DNA, But Exonerations Uncertain

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 10, 2016 @ 1:00 PM — Comments (0)

DNA results have cleared Darryl Adams of the rape for which he was convicted of 24 years ago, but it is unclear whether he will be exonerated or will be eligible to receive compensation for his wrongful conviction. Adams case was riddled with problems, which his lawyers say could and should have prevented his conviction from the start.

In 1992, after a witness reported seeing a rape, police were called to the scene near a Salvation Army and found Adams, another man, and a woman along with her two young children sleeping on the sidewalk. When officers woke them to ask what happened, the woman initially claimed that nothing occurred. After the officers moved her away from Adams and the other man, Ronald Eubanks, the victim told them that Adams had sexually assaulted her and Eubanks had tried to, but was unable. She told police that the men threatened to hurt her children, which is why she denied the rape at first. Adams and Eubanks were both arrested.

Despite DNA results later clearing both men of the rape, officials are still unsure whether the witness’ identification of Adams and Eubanks was a case of mistaken identification, which can be attributed to a large number of wrongful convictions, or if she lied. The Innocence Project of Texas now represents Adams. The project’s president, Gary Udashen, said although he is unsure, he believes the victim lied and that she made up a story because she was scared that police would take her children away from her. In addition, the caller who reported the rape gave a fake name, so the district attorney’s office was unable to locate him/her.

Both Adams and Eubanks accepted plea bargains offered by the DA’s office while they were in jail, entailing “deferred adjudication” probation in which they would not be convicted so long as they carried out all the requirements of the deal. According to Udashen, Adams accepted the plea bargain to get out of jail quickly. He went on to say that the DA’s office would have dismissed the case because Adams’ situation is an example in which people take probation for a case that a jury would not have convicted them of in the first place.

Shortly after accepting the plea deals, however, Adams burglarized a building and did not pay required fees, and Eubanks did not provide a urine sample drug test, was found to have marijuana in his system, did not pay fees or fines, and missed meetings with his probation officer. They were sent to prison for violating their probation, and Eubanks received 10 years for sexual assault and Adams was sentenced to 25 years for sexual assault in addition to 20 years for the burglary charge.

In March, the highest criminal court in Texas—the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—granted Adams a new trial. It is now up to the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office to determine whether they will retry Adams or dismiss the case. The case can be dismissed in two ways—one would exonerate him and grant him compensation, and the other would free him without declaring him innocent. Udashen called the case weird and weak, to which Patricia Cummings, the Dallas County prosecutor that supervises the conviction integrity unit, agreed. The DA’s office has not ruled out retrying the case, and agrees that Adams should be granted a new trial. Adams’ attorneys plan to ask the office to declare him innocent. Udashen stated that because of the DNA results and the fact that the victim in the case died about 15 years ago, it is unlikely that the case will be retried.

In August 2014, Adams was released on bond, but was charged with misdemeanor DWI while he was out. He now lives with family, however, and also has a job.

Eubanks is also seeking to be exonerated for the rape charge, but there has yet to be a ruling handed down by the Court of Criminal Appeals. Although the case has been decided, it is unclear why it is taking so long for the appellate court to write the ruling. The delay could be due to the fact that there is no DNA available for testing since Eubanks was never accused of leaving any, so DNA test results may not help his case. Another possible reason is because Eubanks presented a different legal argument than Adams. While Adams asked for and was granted a new trial based on new scientific DNA evidence that was unavailable at the time of the original handling of his case, Eubanks asked to be declared “actually innocent” in his case by the appellate court.

The DA’s office is waiting to take action in Adams’ case until Eubanks’ case has been ruled on, so they will keep the cases tied together for the time being since they have been intertwined from the get-go, even though nothing requires them to do so. Cummings stated that the office could change its plan should Eubanks’ case continue to remain at the appellate court, which has no deadline to reach a ruling. She went on to say that if the cases are dismissed based on actual innocence, then Adams and Eubanks could both be exonerated.

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The Need for Eyewitness Identification Policies

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 28, 2016 @ 4:00 PM — Comments (0)

Eyewitness misidentification has been a widely discussed topic in terms of wrongful convictions. While it may seem harsh to question a victim about the certainty of his/her identification of a suspect, research does show that mistakes can be made. Human memories are not set in stone, they are malleable and susceptible to influence and alteration.

Eyewitness misidentification is actually the leading cause for wrongful convictions in the U.S. that have been overturned by DNA. Out of those 337 cases that have been overturned by DNA, eyewitness misidentification was responsible for 71 percent of them. In addition, almost half of those DNA exonerations included cross-racial misidentification.

Concern over eyewitness misidentification has garnered increasing attention, so much so that several organizations and individuals have called for much needed reforms. One state that is paying close attention to the numbers is Missouri.

Missouri’s numbers actually exceed the national average. Surprisingly, out of the nine of Missouri’s wrongful convictions that have been overturned by DNA, eyewitness misidentification was involved in every single one. Compared to the national average of 71 percent, Missouri surpasses that number at 100 percent. In addition, out of Missouri’s nine DNA exonerations, cross-racial misidentification was involved in five of those cases. Despite these numbers, Missouri has failed thus far to improve their methods when it comes to eyewitness identification.

A jury instruction presented to the Missouri Supreme Court last month was rejected. This instruction would have informed jurors of scientifically proven factors that contribute to eyewitness misidentification. Although the court did adopt a different set of instructions, they disregard scientific research and do not adequately caution jurors of those factors.

Now, some people are calling on the state’s legislature to pass Senate Bill 842, which would require the adoption of the best techniques for improving eyewitness identification across the state. Those techniques are the same ones the Innocence Project in New York have been urging lawmakers and law enforcement across the county to adopt for the past several years. These suggestions include blind administration, lineup composition, instructions, confidence statements, and recording.

In blind administration, the officer administering a lineup does not know who the suspect is. This could help prevent misidentification because the officer is much less likely to make suggestive statements, unconscious gestures, or vocal cues that may effect a witness’s identification.

In lineup composition, the suspect should resemble the individuals who are not suspects, and those non-suspects should look like the description of the perpetrator given by the eyewitness. In addition, lineups should be performed sequentially, meaning eyewitnesses view individuals or pictures one at a time rather than together to prevent the problem of relevant judgment.

Upon viewing a lineup, the eyewitness should be instructed that the perpetrator may or may not be present and that the investigation will continue regardless of whether or not he/she makes an identification. This could help prevent misidentification because eyewitnesses may not feel pressured that they have to pick a perpetrator. Eyewitnesses should also be instructed not to look at the lineup administrator for guidance.

Eyewitnesses should make a confidence statement once they have made identifications, describing in their own words their level of confidence in their identifications.

Law enforcement should be required to record all eyewitness identification procedures.

Some states and jurisdictions have already adopted and enforced these recommendations. One state that may join them is Nebraska. Similar to Missouri, Nebraska State Senator Patty Pansing Brooks presented Legislative Bill 846 to the Judiciary Committee last week. The bill would create a strict policy for law enforcement agencies to follow when conducting eyewitness identification procedures. Although 60 percent of Nebraska’s law enforcement agencies already have similar eyewitness identification policies in place, requiring agencies both statewide and nationwide to adopt policies is the only way to ensure everyone is doing their part in making sure innocent people do not end up in prison.

Florida, unofrtunately, does not have any uniform policy requirement for the preparation and administration of lineups. A bill to fix this, championed by IPF, was narrowly defeated after passing the Florida Senate in 2011.

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How reliable is the evidence we use to convict?

Alejandra de la Fuente — May 12, 2015 @ 1:32 PM — Comments (0)

Psychological research continues to demonstrate that evidence such as eyewitness identifications or confessions do not necessarily prove guilt; eyewitnesses can misremember events, lineup processes can encourage witnesses to misidentify suspects, and confessions can be coerced. The unreliability of these types of evidence stems from psychological and cognitive processes such as tunnel vision, (in which a criminal justice official becomes so entrenched in the idea that the suspect is guilty that he or she starts to reinterpret information to support this idea,) and the malleability of human memory, (which causes witnesses to remember a crime differently from how it really occurred, and allows suspects to be convinced that they are guilty of a crime that they did not commit cite). Psychology has proved time and time again that not only do humans often incorrectly remember and interpret events, but also that these psychological flaws often contributes to wrongful convictions.

However, we also have to accept the fact that hard scientific evidence is also not always reliable. Over the years, countless types of forensic evidence have been found to be less dependable than they were once thought to be. For example, in 2002, the National Research Council conducted a study the FBI’s use of bullet lead analysis. Bullet lead analysis was performed to find an association between a bullet used for a particular crime, and bullets associated with suspects for that crime. The NRC found that despite the FBI’s equipment and procedures being up to snuff, their interpretations of analysis results were questionable; the FBI overstated the significance of their results to jurors, making the analysis results seem incriminating to a misleading degree. Following the report, the FBI chose to discontinue these tests, but did not thoroughly notify all the defendants who were affected by this misleading testimony, thus limiting their chances to appeal their convictions.

An even more contemporary example from the FBI is the April 2015 announcement that a large majority of FBI cases that included microscopic hair analysis also overstated the results as more incriminating than they actually are. This is especially relevant here at the Innocence Project of Florida due to the high percentage of Floridian defendants who had been convicted with the help of these analyses.  Just because these analyses were misrepresented in court does not necessarily prove the defendants’ innocence, but it does speak to the fragile nature of forensic evidence.

Besides flaws in the significance assigned to results of forensic testing, there are also some fields of forensic science that were previously so plagued with errors that they have had to have been almost completely rewritten. The most noteworthy example is that of arson science. Cases from Cameron Todd Willingham, to David Lee Gavitt, to the very current case of Letitia Smallwood have all been questioned due to the flawed arson science used in their convictions. Arson science from previous decades was actually considered more of an “art”. Rather than experimenting and training, older arson science was based on certain types of burn marks that were thought to indicate arson. However, more recent science, in which researchers set actual fires and observe them, reveals that these same marks appear in accidental fires as well. Arson science reminds us that just because a certain forensic test is considered “science” doesn’t necessarily make it truly “scientific”.

This brief overview of different types of evidence is not meant to demonstrate the hopelessness of preventing wrongful convictions or of using evidence to find the real perpetrators of crimes. Instead, it is a reminder that the resources the criminal justice system has at its disposal to prove someone guilty, from burn marks to confessions, need to be handled with care.

For more information on the fallibility of forensic science, take a look at this article.


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Browsing the National Registry of Exonerations

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 30, 2014 @ 9:29 AM — Comments (0)

The National Registry of Exonerations is an outstanding source of information about exonerations in the United States since 1989. It is searchable, and recently, we took some time to create a short summary of exonerations in the State of Florida.

There have been 50 exonerations listed for Florida, including capital cases, since 1989. Fifteen have been based on new DNA evidence.  Florida leads the nation in exonerations for death penalty cases.

The factors contributing to Florida exonerations range from mistaken witness identification, official misconduct, perjury, false accusation, inadequate legal defense, and false or misleading forensic evidence. By far, the leading factor in Florida cases is perjury of false accusation.

Once you search for the exonerations you wish to examine, links will take you to case summary pages. Here are some examples. Click on the last names to learn more about these cases on the Registry website.

Neely, Todd; Florida; Exonerated 1989; Mistaken Witness ID, Official Misconduct.

Townsend, Jerry; Florida; Exonerated 2001; Mistaken Witness ID, False Confession.

Britt, Cheydrick; Florida; Exonerated 2013; False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Inadequate Legal Defense.

Mr. Britt was exonerated with assistance from the Innocence Project of Florida just last year. In the coming months, we anticipate up to three more exonerations. Stay tuned and take some time to read about all of Florida’s exonerees, many of whom IPF has helped to free, and learn about all of the cases of injustice throughout the United States.

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IPF Director Seth Miller Presents at One Book Event

Alejandra de la Fuente — October 07, 2014 @ 9:45 AM — Comments (0)

The annual One Book Thomas County celebration of learning in Thomasville, Georgia, has chosen as its focus book, Picking Cotton: Our Memoir of Injustice and Redemption, by Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. On Friday, October 17, 2014, at 6:30 p.m., the Executive Director of the Innocence Project of Florida, Seth Miller, will be presenting a lecture and discussion on wrongful convictions and eye witness misidentification at Thomasville On Stage and Company, 117 South Broad Street in downtown Thomasville.

“The story of Jennifer Thompson and Ronald Cotton teaches us the vital lesson that a misidentification can haunt not only the wrongfully convicted individual, but also the well-meaning victim who has to live with the consequences of the mistaken identification,” said Miller. “It is up to policy makers to make modest, evidence-based reforms to prevent misidentifications before they happen, find the true perpetrators, and allow the public to feel confident that the justice system has worked.” This presentation is free and open to the public.

This presentation will be especially timely, concurring with the recent publication of “Identifying the Culprit,” a comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences on the shortcomings and limitations of eye witness evidence.

On Saturday, October 18, Ronald Miller and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino will share their true stories of witness misidentification, wrongful conviction, exoneration, and forgiveness. They will be available to sign books. Admission to Saturday’s event is $10.

For more information, go to the One Book Facebook page at or call Annie Jones at The Bookshelf, 229-228-7767.

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The Innocent Prisoner’s Dilemma: The Everton Wagstaffe Case

Alejandra de la Fuente — September 26, 2014 @ 10:09 AM — Comments (0)

Since January 1992, Everton Wagstaffe has refused to leave prison in New York on probation because that would require him to admit guilt of a crime of which he has steadfastly maintained innocence. Many state legal systems explicitly require an admission of guilt as a condition for parole. In states such as Florida, the admission of guilt is implicit, requiring the convicted to acknowledge their culpability and demonstrate remorse for their crime and for the people they have wronged. Some prisoners, who have claimed innocence have gone ahead and admitted guilt in order to be eligible for release, but find that they are prevented from pursuing their claims of innocence later because they admitted guilt at the parole hearing. This is the innocent prisoner’s dilemma. Northwestern University law professor Daniel Medwell calls it a true Catch 22.

Wagstaffe was convicted in 1992 of the kidnapping and death of a 16-year old girl whose body was found on a Brooklyn street. He spent nearly 23 years in prison protesting for his freedom. On September 17, 2014, Wagstaffe’s conviction was finally reversed by a panel of New York state appeals court judges who found that prosecutors were not forthcoming with evidence that would have shown that detectives and an eye witness to the crime had misled the jury. There had been no other evidence other than the witness’s testimony, which during the recent review of the investigation documents it was discovered that the witness had  been prompted and coached.

Like some other wrongfully convicted exonerees who refused early release because of their integrity, Wagstaffe declined to accept release on parole or probation rather than admit that he had anything to do with the crime. For the time being, he remains in state prison.

Considering the growing number of conviction reversals and exonerations throughout the United States, the “act of grace” that parole boards function as, needs to consider the possibility of false convictions and allow parolees the ability to pursue their claims of innocence after they are released without penalty.

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21 Year Old Man Exonerated in NY After 4 Years Behind Bars

Alejandra de la Fuente — January 17, 2014 @ 3:13 PM — Comments (0)

Jerome Thagard was sentenced to 25 to life when he was just 16 years old for a murder he did not commit. He was released in December 2013 on bond after his attorney, John J. Molloy, filed a motion to vacate his conviction. On January 13, 2014, the Erie County (NY) District Attorney’s Office joined in the motion to vacate Thagard’s conviction and dismissed the murder charge against Thagard.

Thagard was charged of first degree murder after three witnesses testified against him saying that he walked up to Steven Northrup and his 21-year old girl friend arguing, asked her if he wanted her to shoot him, and before she had a chance to answer, he did so. Northrup’s girlfriend and two witnesses sitting nearby picked Thagard out of a photo line up and identifying him as the suspect. Northrup’s girlfriend, however, did not identify the shooter at first. Then, after being pressured by the detective questioning her, she picked the picture who looked most like the shooter, and that happened to be Jerome Thagard. During the trial, Thagard had no witnesses testify on his behalf, although he had a solid alibi. A few months after Thagard had already been convicted and spent months in prison, the Buffalo (NY) police learned the same gun used in the murder Thagard was charged and convicted of was also used in two other homicides three weeks after Thagard was taken into custody for the murder of Steven Northrup.

Once this new information arose, the case was reopened in 2010. In this second investigation the three eyewitnesses recanted their previous statements. According to the District Attorney, “they indicated that Thagard looked like the gunman but they had not been sure he was.” Other details soon arose and the eyewitnesses all signed statements saying they were pressured by detectives.

Thagard, who had been enjoying an evening of watching television with his mom during the murder, will get to do a lot more of that now, after being released following almost four years behind bars. He finished high school while in prison and now says he plans on going to college and make up for lost time.

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Jerry Lee Jenkins Exonerated in Maryland

Alejandra de la Fuente — June 12, 2013 @ 9:11 AM — Comments (3)

After serving more than ten years in prison and spending time on the sex offender registry, the Charles County Circuit Court vacated Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project (MAIP) client Jerry Lee Jenkins of his 1986 rape conviction and dismissed all charges against him! DNA testing both proved he was innocent of the crime and that another man, Norman Bruce Derr, was the real perpetrator.

Jenkins was convicted despite the victim testifying at trial that he only looked like her attacker and that she could not be positive that it was him. Furthermore, he had been excluded as the perpetrator of an eerily similar 1984 rape that both the Charles County Police and FBI believed to have been committed by the same person as the 1986 rape.

DNA testing being in its infancy at the time of the trial, the testing done at that time was unable to obtain a result. When Jenkins requested a re-test in the mid-1990’s, he was told the evidence did not exist – something he would continue to be told for the next fifteen years.

In 2006, he learned that Derr had been convicted of the 1984 rape based on a DNA cold hit. It was then that Jenkins wrote to the MAIP, which took him on as a non-DNA case. In 2010, before filing a non-DNA innocence claim based on the Derr evidence, MAIP attempted one last search for DNA evidence. Miraculously, Charles County police were able to locate a box of physical evidence containing a hair. Subsequent testing confirmed the semen in the 1986 case belonged to Derr.

Jenkins had been previously released from prison, but he’s elated to be off the sex offender registry and have the stigma of the rape removed from his record.

Congratulations to Mr. Jenkins, the MAIP, and everyone involved in the case!

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