Troy Davis And Faulty Witness IDs

August 25, 2011

In this picture, the tiny figure in the parking lot across the street is approximately where Troy Davis was, and the camera is approximately where Dorothy Farrell was, when, according to her trial testimony, she saw his face at 1:30 am. (She, like most of the witnesses, has since recanted).

© Jen Marlowe

“[J]uries tend to ‘over believe’ eyewitness testimony”. So says the American Psychological Association in its amicus brief  for an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case.  And Adam Liptak in the New York Times writes:

“ … it is perilous to base a conviction on a witness’s identification of a stranger. Memory is not a videotape. It is fragile at best, worse under stress and subject to distortion and contamination.”

This view is borne out by over 2,000 studies during the past 3 decades.
So should our courts finally start approaching eyewitness testimony with a higher degree of skepticism?  This is the question raised in the new U.S. Supreme Court case, Perry v. New Hampshire, that will be heard on November 2.  The New Jersey Supreme Court has already decided that something should be done about the “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications.”

What does this mean for Troy Davis, whose conviction and death sentence were based almost exclusively on witness testimony?  After all, many of those witnesses identified him from a photo array after his picture had been plastered all over the media, just the kind of “suggestive circumstances” that are now at issue in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Doubts about the reliability of the witnesses used to convict Troy Davis, and the quality of the investigation that produced those witnesses, are only heightened as we learn more about the unreliability of witness testimony itself.  Yet another reason his execution must not be carried out.

Watch and share this video series to find out more about Troy Davis: