By: Katy Gaffney July 10, 2006
Copyright 2006 By Katy Gaffney
A story came out recently about a man who has been in prison since he was 18 years old. Alan Newton was convicted of rape in 1985 and sentenced to up to 40 years behind bars. He is now 40 and was just released after new DNA evidence was tested. He was found to be innocent of the crime he just served 22 years for. He filed an appeal 12 years ago but was denied because the New York Police Department couldn’t locate the evidence and they suggested it had been destroyed.
Stories like this surface now and again about people serving decades for crimes they were later exonerated of due to DNA evidence. It happens far more frequently than it should. Once in awhile someone may slip through the cracks but with our “great American legal system” at work, it seems to happen because people get lazy and don’t do their work as thoroughly as they should.
This instance got me thinking about this man and other people who the legal system has failed. According to the Innocence Project at the Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York, 181 people in 32 states have been released from prison due to DNA testing.
The DNA evidence being used to right the wrongs of the American legal system brings into light a larger problem; the fact that these people were wrongfully accused and incarcerated for periods of time.
We must look at our legal system closely to understand why this is happening. In Newton’s case eyewitness testimony was used as the prosecutions main tool. According to the Innocence Project nearly 80% of the people they’ve exonerated from prison were put there using eyewitness testimony.
It seems that the victims and witnesses of the particular crime are mistaken a lot of the time on what or who they saw. In numerous cases the authorities don’t take correct precautions to try and make line-ups as unbiased as possible. According to a New York Times article by Jim Dwyer, Newton’s accuser told prosecutors that she wasn’t entirely sure Mr. Newton was her attacker but they based the majority of their defense on her testimony.
The Stanford Journal of Legal Studies ran an article entitled The Process of Eyewitness Testimony, by Laura Engelhardt, that says bias appears within memories whether the person is knowledgeable of that or not. Engelhardt writes that the very process of forming a memory creates distortion. “Perhaps it is the terrible truth that in many cases we are simply not capable of determining what happened, yet are duty-bound to so determine.”
With our “fantastic” legal system, how does this happen? It brings up the question that if there are so many experiments done and articles written about how unreliable eyewitness testimony is, why is it relied upon so heavily against DNA evidence?