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Tue, Aug. 20

Eye wintesses often aren't that reliable

In September 1985, Dennis Brown heard the words that sent him to prison for rape.

The victim took the stand and had no doubt who had attacked her. "I had his face this close for at least 20 minutes," she said, holding her hand inches from her face, "and he's the man." The court convicted Brown of aggravated rape and sentenced him to life without parole.

But in October, the 36-year-old Brown walked out of the Louisiana State Prison in Angola, after DNA evidence exonerated him.

Recently, prosecutors told his lawyers that they were dropping the charges. After being locked up for 19 years, more than half his life, an innocent man was free.

Like many people in his ill-starred position, Brown was the victim of a mistaken identification. The victim picked him out of a police lineup, and her testimony provided the bulk of the evidence against him.

His case illustrates the dangers of relying on what the public used to see as the best kind of evidence – a person who was present at the scene of the crime who can attest, "I saw him do it." Time and again, thanks to DNA evidence, we've seen that a victim can be absolutely sure in identifying her attacker – and be absolutely wrong. Amy Klobuchar, prosecutor for Hennepin County, Minn., which includes Minneapolis, says faulty identifications are "the single most common error" generating bad convictions.

Most disturbing is the fact the mistakes we know about represent only a tiny share of the total. Most of the exonerations involve rapes – where DNA can definitively establish the perpetrator. But police rarely find bodily fluids in robberies, muggings, burglaries and other far more common crimes. So if someone tabs an innocent person, the innocent person probably won't ever be cleared.

Eyewitness testimony can be extremely useful in catching criminals, but it needs safeguards to make sure it doesn't nab the innocent. After all the wrongful convictions in recent years, no one should have trouble seeing that.

(E-mail Steve Chapman through the Creators Syndicate web page at


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