10/13/2008

Faulty eyewitnesses doomed Texas suspects

Related article:
DNA test exonerates Dallas man jailed for 25 years

The Associated Press

DALLAS — Faulty eyewitness testimony that helped secure wrongful convictions in Dallas County, which leads the nation in DNA exonerations, sent the innocent to prison as police and prosecutors ignored safeguards and built cases with flimsy corroboration, according to a newspaper investigation.

Victims pressured to pick suspects, the use of suggestive lineup procedures and evidence withheld to preserve shaky identifications are former practices discovered by The Dallas Morning News in an eight-month review of previously closed Dallas County case files.

The reliance on witness accounts has resulted in innocent men sent to prison and taxpayers spending more than $3 million in compensation and incarceration in Dallas County on wrongfully convicted suspects, according to the report, to be published Sunday.

"Eyewitness testimony was gold," said Kevin Brooks, who heads the district attorney's felony trial bureau. "If the witness said they saw it, they saw it."

In all but one of the 19 convictions resulting in DNA exonerations, the newspaper reported, police and prosecutors built their case on eyewitness accounts, even though they knew such testimony can be fatally flawed.

No one has been charged with lying or disciplined for incompetence or negligence in connection with the exonerations. All but five occurred under the late District Attorney Henry Wade, who served from 1951 to 1986 and ran an office marked by take-no-prisoners trial tactics, conviction rates that topped 90 percent and record-length punishments.

"No one ever thought a one-eyewitness case was good," said Joe Kendall, a prosecutor under Wade from 1980 to 1982. "But if you had a one-eyewitness case, and it was a rape case, and the victim said that's the one, you couldn't dismiss."

Current prosecutor Craig Watkins, the state's first elected black district attorney, said he is trying to instill in his prosecutors the need to be more skeptical and to seek corroboration.

"We know that eyewitness identification is faulty," Watkins said.

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