The Myth of Sisyphus, a 1942 philosophy essay, concerns that now-iconic image of a man (Sisyphus) who had been “condemned to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight.” This curse was supposed to convey the notion that “there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”
In many ways, as advocates and concerned community members, it can be easy to feel like Sisyphus. We roll the ball up, up, and up, only to have it come crashing down to the bottom of the hill. We’re back at the proverbial “square one” time and time again. One area where this “feeling of Sisyphus” might have been present for criminal defendants in Illinois concerns eyewitness identifications. There is now a scientific consensus concerning the problems with eyewitness identifications in certain scenarios. That consensus runs counter to our intuition. In sexual assault cases in particular, the common sense notion was that there is absolutely no way a victim could misidentify their attacker. DNA evidence has illustrated, time and time again, that “common sense” is simply false. In light of this science, other states have permitted experts to present this science in criminal trials. And, legislatures—including the Illinois legislature—have passed laws aimed at reducing faulty and unreliable identifications from being generated in the first place. (A move that should prevent unreliable identifications from being used at trial).
Nonetheless, in Illinois, following a terribly narrow and short-sighted 1990 decision called People v. Enis criminal defendants facing decades of incarceration were prevented from presenting the scientific evidence that would allow them to explain why the victim to a crime, despite their confidence, might be mistaken. And the Enis decision reined despite the fact that a growing well-accepted chorus of social scientists illustrated the flaws in eyewitness conviction. Thus, in lagging behind other states, criminal defendants in Illinois were essentially forbidden from presenting scientific testimony that would explain why our “common sense” notions about witness identifications are wrong.
At least, until now.
A couple weeks ago, in a landmark decision, the Illinois Supreme Court reversed course. The case, called People v. Lerma, finally recognized that common sense notions—those jurors hold—are often mistaken. And, that the social science is “unfamiliar to the average person” and “in fact … counterintuitive.” Indeed, the Illinois Supreme Court has now admitted that “eyewitness misidentification is now the single greatest source of wrongful convictions in the United States, and responsible for more wrongful convictions than all other causes combined.” As the Court well-put it: “In the 25 years since Enis, we not only have seen that eyewitness identifications are not always as reliable as they appear, but we also have learned, from a scientific standpoint, why this is often the case.”
In many ways, this should be the moment where, unlike the myth, Sisyphus is finally able to push the rock over the top of the hill. The decades of work by pro se criminal defendants, public defender offices around the State, and the zealous advocacy of innocence organizations, like the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern, has finally paid off. Ten years ago—heck, even 5 years ago—it would have been easy to feel that, as far as getting a fair trial based on eyewitness evidence was concerned, criminal defendants in Illinois had been condemned to “futile and hopeless labor” by the curse of Enis. Today, with delight, Lerma is a positive reminder that we—the community members, the advocates, the criminal defendants seeking a fair shake—are not Sisyphus. The curse, it seems, has been broken, at last.