Following a 1996 Russian Roulette shooting, prosecutors used faulty eyewitness testimony to convict two men for a murder they didn’t commit, a court recently held.
Prosecutors initially charged one of the men, who was in the room with the victim, with manslaughter. Later, under pressure from the deceased teen’s family, prosecutors upgraded the charges to murder. They also charged his friend, who had a confirmed alibi, with murder.
One witness claimed she heard the two defendants conspire to kill the victim. This witness later changed her story. The critical testimony came from a speech- and hearing-impaired witness. He claimed he saw the second defendant flee the scene of the crime, although the witness couldn’t identify the defendant in court. As they investigated the incident, the Georgia Innocence Project found a better interpreter for Childers, who revealed that he had never told police that he had seen Clark on the night of the shooting. Most of his testimony concerned an unrelated crime he had witnessed a decade earlier.
“Prosecutors have a duty to see that justice is done in their cases, and that must include a commitment to principles of integrity, equity and accountability,” remarked GIP’s Meagan Hurley. “It is imperative that they are willing to take corrective action when they see injustice, including when the injustice is perpetrated by police,” she added.
Pressure on Prosecutors
The Georgia Innocence Project does a lot of good work, but its stance on a prosecutor’s duty is incorrect. Prosecutors do not have a responsibility to fight for truth, justice, and the American way. Prosecutors, like all other lawyers, have a duty to zealously represent their clients. Marietta criminal defense attorneys do their best to obtain acquittals, whether the defendants “did it” or not. In the same way, prosecuting attorneys do their best to obtain convictions, whether the defendants “did it” or not.
When they receive their law licenses, prosecutors take the same oath as defense attorneys. Frequently, prosecutors deal with additional pressure to obtain convictions.
As the crime rate increases, lawmakers and voters often pressure elected district and county attorneys to “do something” about this “problem.” Let’s address the second part first.
During the coronavirus pandemic, alcohol abuse increased 25 percent. Many people had issues securing Xanax and other mental health medications, partially because the demand was so high and partially because the supply chain was so slow. Therefore, many chose to self-medicate with alcohol. Still other people had issues dealing with everyday coronavirus-related stress. So, like so many others have done, they turned to a bottle.
There is a close relationship between alcohol use and criminal activity that’s not limited to DUIs and other such infraction. Alcohol lowers inhibitions. People who drink often do things they wouldn’t do otherwise. So, the post-COVID crime uptick may be more of a health issue as opposed to a social problem.
Prosecutors cannot do anything about this situation. Nevertheless, their bosses are under pressure to “do something” about it. To increase the number of convictions, many area prosecutors have adopted closed-file policies. A prosecutor no longer voluntarily shares information, like the police report, with a Marietta criminal defense attorney. Instead, a defense lawyer must file a motion with the court. The judge usually grants this discovery motion, but the time-consuming process drives up the cost of criminal defense in Cobb County.
Fundamentally, in the war on crime, convictions are the only measuring stick for success. Elected officials use enhanced conviction statistics to claim victory, and non-elected prosecutors use them to move up the corporate ladder.
Furthermore, as mentioned in the above story, family members often pressure prosecutors to convict someone. The conviction helps the family obtain closure and also shifts blame for the incident off their loved ones and onto a “criminal.” Because of the aforementioned political environment, most prosecutors bow to pressure in these situations.
Eyewitness Testimony in Violent Crimes
The Supreme Court has not weighed in on the issue of eyewitness testimony since 1977. So, the rules haven’t changed much. However, since the 1970s, many troubling questions have arisen in this area. For example, according to Professor Brandon Garrett, almost all defendants who were acquitted based on DNA evidence were convicted based on faulty eyewitness testimony. Yet many people, including many jurors, believe that such testimony is rock solid. As a result, according to the American Psychological Association, jurors often over-rely on such evidence.
A fundamental issue is that our brains are not video cameras. No one, not even a Cobb County prosecutor, can press “rewind” and “play.” Instead, we all remember things selectively. That’s especially true if we are under extreme stress at the time. Witnessing a violent crime certainly qualifies as such. Additionally, human memory doesn’t fade slowly over time. Most people forget 90 percent of what they see and hear in only forty-eight hours. Clear memories quickly become fragmented memories that are subject to manipulation.
Police officers often make this situation worse. Whether they do so intentionally or unintentionally doesn’t matter.
Blind lineups, as opposed to double-blind lineups, are a good example. Most live and photo lineups are single-blind lineups. Based on the angry and frustrated look on Police Chief Wiggum’s face, this classic lineup was probably a single-blind lineup.
In a single-blind lineup, the witness doesn’t know who the suspect is, but the administering officer knows. So, either intentionally or unintentionally, the officer gives the witness clues. For example, the officer might place the “right” suspect in the middle of a live lineup or linger slightly over the “right” suspect’s photograph.
Double-blind lineups, in which neither the witness nor the officer knows the suspect’s identity, are much more reliable. However, since these lineups are more time-consuming and reduce the chance that the witness will pick the “right” suspect, police departments rarely use these lineups.
On a related note, instructions matter. A simple change, like “the person you saw may or may not be in this lineup,” makes a big difference.
Most criminal cases don’t involve verdict reversals. However, almost all criminal cases involve some postconviction proceedings, usually court supervision violations. These infractions usually break down into substantive and technical violations.
Committing a new offense and failure to report are the most common substantive violations. An aggressive defense to the new charge is the best approach in the first scenario. The second scenario is difficult to deal with. Probationers and parolees either showed up on time or they didn’t. Other than catastrophic illness or death, there’s usually no excuse.
Technical violations include failure to pay fines or costs, failure to perform a community service or other obligation, and failure to update information. Usually, judges or supervision officers are willing to give the defendant a chance to make things right, especially if a Marietta criminal defense attorney makes this request.
Other postconviction matters include early discharge from probation and record sealing. Judges have a great deal of discretion in both these areas.
Prosecutors use whatever tools they can, including faulty eyewitness testimony, to convict defendants. For a free consultation with an experienced Marietta criminal defense attorney, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. We routinely handle matters in Cobb County and nearby jurisdictions.