We have previously written about the problems with relying on eyewitness testimony to solve crimes and secure convictions. Most of us are pretty confident about our powers of observation and the reliability of our memory. But in most cases, that confidence is misplaced.
Juries here in Wisconsin and around the country are often convinced by testimonial accounts from eyewitnesses. But study after study shows that it is very easy to misinterpret what one observes, and even easier to fill in missing information with false memories. A recent case is a good example.
Last month, the New York Times wrote an article about a violent altercation between two police officers and an African-American suspect that occurred mid-morning in an area filled with pedestrians. Video footage from a security camera confirms the officers' versions of the story. The two officers began following a man who they suspected may have been responsible for earlier violent attacks on random citizens. Suddenly, he turned around and began attacking one of the officers, a woman, with a hammer.
The suspect delivered several blows before being shot by the other officer. He survived the shooting and will now face serious criminal charges for felony assault and criminal possession of a weapon.
The Times coverage, however, focused on the accounts of two eyewitnesses to the incident. A 26-year-old man told the Times that he saw a police officer chase the suspect into the street and shoot him. He added that the suspect "looked like he was trying to get away from the officers."
A 41-year-old witness, who saw the incident while out on a bike ride, had a different story. She contacted the Times and said: "I saw a man who was handcuffed being shot. And I am sorry, maybe I am crazy, but that is what I saw.”
The one consistent detail between all three stories is that the suspect was shot by an officer. But the details leading up to the shooting would determine whether the shooting was justified or not. And the details provided by the two witnesses were almost entirely incorrect.
Imagine if this incident had not been captured on video. Imagine if it had not involved police officers but rather average citizens being attacked by the suspect. How much credibility would have been given to these eyewitness accounts?
Most eyewitnesses do not lie. They may believe that their account of the details is true. But because we know that memory and observations are so fallible, we need to adjust how and when such evidence is used in criminal cases.