Technology superior to eyewitness testimony

2014-03-24 14:05
Technology provides a more accurate way to determine cause of death in court cases than eyewitness testimony. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Technology provides a more accurate way to determine cause of death in court cases than eyewitness testimony. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Cape Town - Technology could and should eliminate most eyewitness testimony from court cases to ensure more accurate legal judgements, a top forensic pathologist has said.

Homicide court cases are often compromised by eyewitnesses who give false evidence because of mistaken identities or the time between the crime and court date.

"The big problem we have here in the Western Cape is that if your system takes months or years, memories fade and people change," Dr David Fowler, State of Maryland chief forensic pathologist told News24.

Fowler practised in the Western Cape before leaving for the US where he has a team consisting of almost 200 forensic investigators.

DNA exonerations

He said that the US state's system is far more complete than the one practised in SA.

"We don't just do an autopsy; we do a complete death investigation. From the moment the person is pronounced dead, that is a crime scene and the police have control of the crime scene but they're not are not allowed to touch the body."

The Innocence Project achieved fame because of the number of exonerations that they have done based on studying DNA evidence.

"Research shows that the human mind is not like a tape recorder; we neither record events exactly as we see them, nor recall them like a tape that has been rewound," the organisation says.

The Innocence Project has participated in 314 post conviction DNA exonerations in the US since 1989 of which 18 cases involved people serving time on death row.

"Basically what’s happened is that technology that wasn’t available 20 or 30 years ago when some of these individuals were convicted, but the evidence has been locked up in evidence lockers," said Fowler.

In the Oscar Pistorius trial underway in SA, there has been a concerted effort by the defence to undermine the eyewitness testimony.

Reliable evidence

This practice is natural for a legal team where the facts are not in dispute, but rather, the intention of the accused.

However, in cases where the facts of a crime are questioned, forensic evidence has proven that it is far more reliable than eyewitness testimony.

"Now they can take these modern technologies and use them to either prove [the guilt] or exonerate some of these individuals that were convicted on what we would consider to be traditional courtroom techniques," Fowler said of the DNA-led investigations.

The Western Cape province has 18 post mortem facilities and sees around 10 000 sudden death cases per year, of which around 30% are murder victims.

Fowler said that it was common for eyewitnesses to get confused about the details of a crime several months after the incident and this had a negative impact on the delivery of justice.

"When you get into the courtroom, they have processed that information in their head multiple times and what they're remembering is an altered perception of what they saw."


The Innocence Project also found that incompetent attorneys contributed significantly to an innocent person being found guilty and cited cases where a lawyer was literally asleep during the trial.

Even confessions have been shown to be unreliable because a suspect may be under stress, intoxicated, or fearful of police interrogators.

Fowler said that modern technologies in court cases are refining the way the legal system operates.

"Twenty or thirty years ago when these things [forensic pathology techniques] didn't exist, 'Beyond a reasonable doubt' was done in more traditional means. Now we're throwing more and more science at it which gives us a greater degree of certainty."

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