Bound for Balkans on a Fulbright

The Register Guard (Eugene, OR), May 16, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Bound for Balkans on a Fulbright


Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

A University of Oregon law school professor will spend the 2011-12 academic year in Bosnia and Herzegovina, researching the use of eyewitness identification in the trials of alleged perpetrators of 1990s ethnic cleansing atrocities there.

Criminal law professor Carrie Leonetti received a Fulbright scholarship to study and teach in the Balkan region, where investigators are using DNA testing to identify tens of thousands of victims buried in mass graves.

The area, once part of Yugoslavia, is a crucible for what a UO law school dean called Leonetti's "cutting edge" research on identifying perpetrators, because eyewitness identification has been a primary means of holding accountable people who have been accused and convicted of genocide.

Yet DNA analysis in the United States has led to the exoneration of nearly 200 innocent people convicted, at least in part, on the basis of faulty eyewitness identification, according to the Innocence Project. The project is a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to correcting such injustices.

Recent social science research also raises "serious accuracy concerns" about eyewitness evidence as gathered and used in the United States, Leonetti said - "particularly in light of what is known about the ways in which memories are stored and received and the influence that identification procedures can have on the accuracy of eyewitness identification."

Research into Innocence Project and other exonerations also shows that the "certainty of the witness making the identification bears zero relationship to the accuracy of the identification," she said. Such certainty has historically been tremendously persuasive with judges and juries, she said, but the new research suggests that it has more to do with the personality of the witness - whether they are tentative or assertive - than with whether the witness is actually correct in identifying a perpetrator.

According to the Innocence Project, incorrect eyewitness identifications played a role in the wrongful convictions of about three-quarters of the 270 people in the United States who were subsequently exonerated by DNA testing - including 17 who served time on death row.

"What the flood in exonerations based on DNA shows is that a lot of innocent people get convicted by very certain but wrong eyewitness identifications," Leonetti said. "DNA evidence has shown that evidence we used to think of as a smoking gun is not as reliable as we thought."

The new research does not suggest that such witnesses must be lying, she stressed - only that their memories can be mistaken.

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