Thursday, April 17, 2008

Two decades in prison for a crime he didn't commit

Moments ago, Innocence Project client Thomas McGowan stood on the steps of a Dallas courthouse, free for the first time in 23 years. And while he should be enjoying his first day of freedom, he was already thinking of other innocent people he’d left behind. He told reporters today that he’ll do whatever he can to prevent the injustice of a misidentification and wrongful conviction from happening to another person.

McGowan was joined at the courthouse today by his mother, his sister and other supportive friends and relatives. He will live with his sister while he begins to rebuild his life. His mother told reporters yesterday that Thomas’ release is an answer to years of prayers.

"It's in the Bible," she said, "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

The truth set McGowan free, but it was a flawed photo lineup that led to his conviction in the mid-1980s for a rape he didn’t commit. In Texas alone, 31 people have been exonerated by DNA testing — more than in any other state. In 24 of those cases, eyewitness misidentification contributed to the wrongful conviction. And McGowan’s case is an example of the kind of lineups that have sent countless innocent people to prison across the country. Most of these cases don't involve biological evidence and will never be overturned by DNA testing.

McGowan’s photo was included in a lineup because it was on record from a traffic violation. The photos were different from one another — one was black and white, some were photocopies, and others were marked with the names of police departments. The victim told the officer conducting the lineup that she “thought” McGowan was the perpetrator. “You have to be sure, yes or no,” the officer told her. After hearing these instructions, she said McGowan was “definitely” the perpetrator. With this as the main evidence against him, he was convicted and sentenced to two life terms in prison.

"Just a few simple words can change everything. In this case, a few words from the police officer adminstering the lineup cost Thomas McGowan 23 years of his life," Innocence Project Co-Director Barry Scheck said. "The officer forced the victim into certainty when she wasn't sure whether Mr. McGowan was the perpetrator. While we sometimes hear of outrageous lineup procedures, improperly pushing a witness into certainty is much more common."

Visit the website of the Innocence Project to learn more about Thomas McGowan’s release, and reforms proposed by the Innocence Project to prevent misidentifications and wrongful convictions.

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