Eyewitness (mis)identification played a key role in my most recent trial where an innocent man was prosecuted and taken to trial on the assumption that an eyewitness correctly recognized him from a momentary interaction with the suspect. Hitchcock fans may recognize the chilling storyline of an innocent man wrongfully accused of a crime because he resembles the actual suspect from “The Wrong Man” starring Henry Fonda.
The film was actually based on the true story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero, a Bass player at the Stork Club in 1950′s New York who was arrested for a series of robberies which he did not commit. Hitchcock’s retelling of the musician’s harrowing ordeal before the real perpetrator is ultimately caught is no less powerful today than when it was first released. These stories keep unfortunately repeating themselves in our legal narratives with the most press going to those who are freed on DNA evidence after decades in custody. How many others languish in jails without the benefit of DNA to free them? How many others have taken pleas out of fear and have to live with the consequences and shame of criminal convictions for crimes they did not commit? How many more will there be before our system institutes meaningful and effective reforms to address the most glaring causes of wrongful convictions? Hollywood may continue to retell this tale, but by working together with legislators, prosecutors and police and ensuring that changes take place, we can make more of the stories fictional rather than factual.
This post was originally published June 3, 2011 by the author, Jessica Horani, on http://horanilaw.blogspot.com/ and has been edited for content.