Vision. It is something that many of us take for granted each day and it is something that others have never known. It enables us to see all that the world has to offer, some good and some bad, but it is all available for us to process due to the ability to see. But it is not always what we see that is important but more so what we remember, and our interpretation of the details as to what we saw. Ten people can look at the same picture and you could easily have 10 different stories about what was in the picture. (Do you think eyewitness identification is reliable? Tell us in the comments.) That is just a matter of us processing the things that are of interest to us and minimizing those things in the picture that are not.
The subject of vision, as it relates to what one may or may not have seen as it relates to crime, and how that visual experience gets translated orally is a hot topic right now. Eye witness identification has always been a foundational tool in the evidence used to solve crimes. What better evidence could there be than having a witness testify that they saw John or Jane Doe commit the crime and then point them out in the courtroom as the perpetrator? Pretty convincing evidence … right? Well, maybe it is and maybe it is not.
Several cases have been overturned as of late where the primary evidence used in a conviction was eye witness testimony. DNA testing, that may not have been available at the time of the crime, has exonerated people who have served many years based on the eye witness testimony. According to a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, there have been eight men in recent years that have been cleared after having been misidentified by victims and witnesses. The article went on to say that there are 200 such cases nationwide. Once the new tests have been performed, whereby the person who was convicted is literally eliminated as to the one who committed the crime, it becomes apparent that many undeserved years have been spent in confinement based on a false identification. This is not ma matter of deliberately accusing someone falsely. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In these cases, the witness is convinced that the person they identified is the person who they saw commit the crime. This is simply a matter of one’s recollection not being as strong as they might have thought, or in some cases, their recollections being altered by a series of errors used in the identification process.
When we think of identifying someone, we typically think of a photo line-up or a live line-up that we have all seen depicted in the movies. These are methods that are actually fairly accurate for the most part and are used widely by law enforcement today. In some cases, it is not the practice that comes into question, but the method in which the practice is done. Seemingly innocent remarks by police officers that are not necessarily intended to sway the witness can sometimes do just that. In other cases, it appears that the intentional actions of some law enforcement officers have played a direct part in the misidentification. Based on these examples and the number of people who have apparently been wrongly convicted, the cornerstone of perpetrator identification is being questioned. So much so that the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments concerning this type of identification for the first time in nearly 35 years.
In a world where human involvement is being taken out of almost everything, it seems unfathomable that eye witness identification is being taken to task. We all have made the statement, “I know what I saw.” A more accurate statement might be “I know what I think I saw.” Scientists tell us that there are many factors at play when it comes to recalling what we see. Obvious things such as lighting, angles, obstructions, and literally the visual competency of the witness are obvious. Unfortunately, one’s vision is typically a declining, and not an inclining prospect. But other issues such as stereotyping, prejudices and biases, and stress can be even a larger factor in recounting an observed incident and the persons involved in the incident. The AJC article quoted Brandon Garrett, author of “Convicting the Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong,” as saying that “memory is extremely fragile and malleable.” What we see is apparently not always what we actually saw but we believe we saw.
Whether or not eyewitness identification should be available and admissible in court for law enforcement remains to be seen. The upcoming case before the Supreme Court will likely set a higher standard in not only the way that identifications are made but more importantly, how that identification conclusion arrived. In a time where law enforcement needs all of the tools available in solving criminal acts, it would be a debilitating blow to their arsenal to not have this method available. On the other hand, if eyewitness identification has become flawed or corrupted, especially at the hands of some who might be more interested in the arrest than the truth, then it should be closely examined.
I still firmly believe that there is no greater evidence than what one has seen and observed with their own eyes. This is evidence that is not based on preponderance, or benefit of the doubt, or reasonable doubt, or even a shadow of a doubt. It is evidence of exactly what occurred, and is evidence of exactly who caused it to occur, based on exactly what was seen. It was not told to them; they did not read about it, they saw it with their own eyes. This process only comes into question when what one person saw becomes filtered, or altered based on the efforts of others, or based on their own corruption. In these cases, it is not the practice, but the practitioners that should be held responsible.
However, even with the best case scenario, mistakes will be made. Our legal system is not one that can ever be perfect. It is a system that is based on human involvement, and when there are humans involved, mistakes will inherently occur. There is no fool proof method for holding us accountable for wrongdoing. But we should tread lightly on removing the human experience all together. While some continue to trumpet all that is technological and scientific, rather that that which is human, I still tend to place my bets with the humans. Do you see what I’m saying?