Rev. Oscar Walden Jr. remembers his mother’s birthday as the day he received what amounted to life in prison-75 years.
He was arrested on her birthday, Jan. 11, in 1952 and subsequently convicted for a crime he did not commit.
The charge was rape; the accuser – a woman he had never met.
After his arrest, he was kept incommunicado for four days. While being kicked and bitten, he alleged, Walden caved in to Chicago police officers’ demands that he apologize to the woman. He did and she promptly identified him as “the one.”
Walden spent the next 13 years in jail until he was pardoned by Gov. George Ryan based on his innocence. He was awarded $120,000 in damages, a trifle compared to the years he has lost.
“The truth came out,” he said.
But Walden is just one of 54 cases in Illinois, where faulty eyewitness accounts have punished the wrong person.
A report released by the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University’s School of Law found that erroneous eyewitness identification had cost these men a total of 601 years in prison and millions of dollars in damage payments for taxpayers.
Bowman and Walden, along with other legal advocates, hosted a press conference in February to announce the release of the study. Advocates pointed out flaws in the eyewitness identification lineup process.
Locke Bowman, the legal director for the MacArthur Justice Center, says the procedure for eyewitness identification -which uses the traditional, simultaneous lineup of suspects – systematically lead to a biased identification.
“What usually happens is a simultaneous lineup [that is administered] by a detective who knows who the suspect is. He may inadvertently suggest to the witness to look closer at suspect No. 3,” said Bowman, who’s also an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
Rob Warden, executive director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions echoed that observation. In a line-up, “The witness has a tendency to compare who looks most like the perpetrator,” he said.
Warden pointed to a host of national studies offering improvements to the process. One recommendation is a sequential double-blind method to eyewitness identification, where suspects are presented one by one, and the administrating detective does not know who the suspect is.
“When you present [suspects] sequentially, the witness must judge on each one without comparison,” Warden said.
The Illinois State Police, however, has released a report in March of 2006, concluding just the opposite. The report, based on data provided by the Chicago, Evanston and Joliet Police departments, concluded that, “The sequential, double-blind method cannot be regarded as superior to the simultaneous method.”
Legal advocates lambaste the report, calling it “flawed.”
“There is no other research of any kind that has ever been done that supports what this study does, which is to justify the status quo,” Bowman said.
Bowman’s Washington-based association requested from the Chicago, Evanston and Joliet police departments, along with the Illinois state police, data underlying the study in order to conduct a review. But the police departments cited various exemptions in the Illinois Freedom of Information Act concerning the request, and refused to release the data, Bowman said.
“It’s a cynical, political ploy,” he added.
The Washington-based association filed lawsuit last month with the Circuit Court of Cook County’s Chancery Department to obtain a court order seeking documents and records describing the procedures used in the Illinois report.
Named in the suit are the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, the chiefs of the Evanston and Joliet police departments, and the director of the Illinois state police.
The case is pending.