Steve Chapman
In 1989, a Waukegan, Ill., woman was raped after three men invaded her apartment. She told police the rapist had a tattoo, wore an earring in a pierced ear and spoke English. Two days later, the cops took her to an office and said, "Watch the one sitting on the chair."

Alejandro Dominguez, age 16, had no tattoos or pierced ears, and he reportedly could speak only Spanish. The woman, however, said he was the attacker, and largely on the strength of her testimony, he was convicted. Not until 2002 did DNA analysis prove Dominguez was innocent.

It's a dismally familiar tale: a victim making an eyewitness identification that later turns out to be horribly mistaken. This type of mistake is universally known as the most common cause of false convictions. Yet law enforcement authorities, courts and juries continue to treat it as pure gold.

But change is on the way in New Jersey, where last week, the state Supreme Court ran out of patience with a method that puts so many innocents behind bars. It mandated new rules that will help to prevent errors while giving defendants more avenues to expose them.

The justices said that "courts must carefully consider identification evidence before it is admitted to weed out unreliable identifications" and "juries must receive thorough instructions tailored to the facts of the case to be able to evaluate the identification evidence they hear."

Like other evidence, it must be subject to careful scrutiny and challenge. The burden of disproof will still fall on the accused, but it will be easier to meet. Chances are good that, as a result, some blameless individuals will be spared.

It's the least the courts can do, and it's something the U.S. Supreme Court will get to consider this fall, hearing the first major case on the issue since 1977. Since then, the fallibility of eyewitness evidence has been confirmed by a mounting pile of data.

In one experiment, a "customer" went into a convenience store to buy a soft drink with a traveler's check, which required him to provide an ID and spend a few minutes conversing with the clerk. Later, the clerks were asked to find the person in a group of photos. Forty-one percent made a wrong pick.

Errors don't happen because crime witnesses choose to lie. Most of them sincerely believe what they say. But their memories may be addled by shock, colored by a desire to punish the villain or led astray by police suggestions.

The palpable certitude of someone who was present during a crime makes for powerful evidence to a jury. But as the New Jersey court opinion noted, "accuracy and confidence may not be related to one another at all."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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