Eyewitnesses: How Reliable Are They?

By: Lisa Ferrari
By: Lisa Ferrari

February 15, 2005

Eyewitness identification can be the most powerful evidence in a trial. After all when someone sits in a court room and points his or her finger and says that's the one - juries often believe it.

Here in Charlottesville, a man is suing a woman who wrongly accused him of rape and that made us wonder how accurate eyewitnesses are. As we found out witness identifications are wrong more often than right.

A study on wrongful convictions in Virginia places much of the blame on mistaken eyewitness identifications. The Innocence Commission for Virginia found that of eleven wrongfully convicted individuals mistaken identification was a factor in nine of the eleven cases.

In part one of a two part series, a man wrongfully convicted of rape in Albemarle County over 20 years ago -- for the first time talks about what happened to him.

"June the 15, 1983 it was on Wednesday. It was hot outside. It was a really nice beautiful day," said this innocent man convicted of rape in an Albemarle County court room 20 years ago.

"There were some detectives out front wanted to speak with me. I went out there and they asked me to get in the back seat of a car. They showed me a drawing of a person and I said, 'Who is this?' They said it supposed to be you. I said, 'What are you talking about?' They said they were talking about rape," explained the man.

Ashamed of the events that unfolded that day 'John' asked that his name be changed to help shield his identity.

"It's hard for me to talk to anybody about it. As a matter of fact, you are the first person I've ever spoken to about this in over 20 years," he said to reporter Lisa Ferrari.

The alleged victim picked John from a line up. He was charged with rape, sodomy and malicious wounding.

"I said let me talk to her...She's got the wrong man. Let me talk to her," he said.

John didn't get to talk to her and was sent to jail to await trial.

"I go to court and that's the first time I had ever seen her and she walks in there and she points her finger at me [and] says 'he's the man that [did] it,'" he continued.

Albemarle County Commonwealth's Attorney Jim Camblos was then John's defense attorney.

"There's no physical evidence linking him to the crime it was just her testimony saying he is the one that did it and he got convicted," said Camblos.

John was sentenced to 120 years in prison.

"I was engaged to be married. I had a woman that I loved very much and it was all just taken away. My life ended on that day, it ended," John said.

While behind bars some hope arrived--hidden police notes were found giving a description of a different suspect.

A judge ordered a new trial. Yet, John's hope was soon lost when the second jury found him guilty. This time he was to serve 90 years in prison.

"The whole world then collapsed before my eyes again. I didn't know what to do," John said.

John was locked up for two years and 8 months and then the Virginia Supreme Court stepped in.

"The day before the Virginia Supreme Court reversed the case, the woman had stated that the rape never happened," he said.

Twenty years ago DNA evidence didn't exist. Juries relied on eyewitnesses and the sole power of one person pointing his or her finger. Today eyewitnesses still play a vital role.

"We have to be very very careful with it and do our best to make sure we don't prosecute and convict somebody who shouldn't be," said Camblos.

John was one of those people who shouldn't have been prosecuted, and to this day he's haunted by the memories of being convicted of a crime he didn't commit.

"February 3, 1986 was on a Monday is when I was released and I’ll never forget that day. Those two days--June the 15th is when my life ended. February 3rd is when my life began again," he said.

When John was released from prison, he started a new life outside of Albemarle County because people in the area still treated him as if he were guilty.

For more information on eyewitness testimony, check out Part 2 of this series.

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