Eyewitness Misidentification: How the Innocence Project Helped Exonerate Marvin Anderson

Eyewitness identification is a familiar tool in criminal trials. 60 Minutes has called it "a cliché of courtroom dramas." But human memory is not a tape to be rewound and produce an accurate recall of past events. The Innocence Project reports that eyewitness misidentification "is the greatest contributing factor to wrongful convictions proven by DNA testing, playing a role in more than 70% of convictions overturned through DNA testing nationwide." LBN’s Emily Collins relates the story of Marvin Lamont Anderson’s wrongful conviction and exoneration in this report.

In 1982, Marvin Anderson, eighteen years old at the time, became the person of interest in a rape case. The rape victim told police that the man who raped her had said that he had a white girl, and Anderson was the only black man the officers knew of who fit that description. The victim picked out a color photo of Anderson from a photo array. She later picked him out in a police lineup. Anderson had no criminal record and had an alibi, but in spite of that, he was convicted of rape and related charges. He was sentenced to serve 210 years in a Virginia prison.

In 1988, a man named John Otis Lincoln came forward and admitted to being the rapist. However, Anderson’s conviction was not overturned, even though Lincoln admitted details that only the real culprit would have known. Anderson had asked his lawyers to investigate Lincoln, but they had declined to do so.

DNA testing was not used at the time of Anderson’s conviction. However, its use became commonplace in later years. He continued to protest his innocence, and in 1994, the Innocence Project got involved in his case. Most of the evidence presented at trial had long since been destroyed. However, some items, including sperm samples from the victim’s body, were still available. With the help of the Innocence Project, Anderson was exonerated after serving twenty years in prison.

Over the years, eyewitness identification has been proved inaccurate in a host of cases. Many states have adopted improvements to the system to reduce the possibility of these miscarriages of justice. Meanwhile, Anderson has gone on with his life. He received some financial compensation from the state of Virginia. He is the chief of the Hanover, Virginia fire department. In Anderson’s case, at least, justice was delayed, but it was not denied.

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