Why You Should Always Be Skeptical of Eyewitness Testimony

Why You Should Always Be Skeptical of Eyewitness Testimony June 12, 2018

Last week, as part of this series on wrongful convictions, I wrote about why it’s so important for average citizens to understand what reasonable doubt is, and how a “not guilty” verdict is not the same as finding a defendant “innocent”. You can read other parts in this series here:

This week, for part two, I want you to watch something. This is the OJ Simpson trial, which involved a lawyer from the Innocence Project. Here was a perfect example of reasonable doubt. You can generally find out what sort of juror you will be by your opinion on this trial. If you would have agreed with the verdict that jury came to, you probably have a very good understanding of what reasonable doubt means. If you would have found him guilty, then you would likely be an emotional juror and the chances of you serving on a jury that might accidentally put away an innocent man are pretty good.

Watch this:

What you see in this video are two things:

1. This was race-related. The verdict, in this case, was important to the black community because the black community is overwhelmingly and disproportionately blamed for most crime in the USA when stats, studies and facts all show that they do not, and have never, committed near half of the crime in the US. Putting away innocent black people for crimes they did not commit doesn’t just happen often. There is no doubt in my mind, this happens daily.

Consider these facts:

  • 13% of the US population is black.
  • 40%+ of the US prison population is black.
  • African Americans make up the majority of people serving time for nonviolent drug offenses.
  • Black youth are arrested ten times more for drug offenses than white youth.
  • 5 times as many white people report using illicit drugs as black people. Five times.

2. The line toward the end of this video, “One question hangs in the air. If OJ Simpson did not murder his ex-wife and her friend… who did?” illustrates the misconception of the jury system perfectly. OJ was not found innocent, he was found not guilty. There is a vast difference. A not guilty verdict can be made even when jurors feel the defendant did, in fact, commit the crime being examined. The difference is the question, “does the evidence support my opinion beyond a reasonable doubt?”. If the answer is no, a not guilty verdict is necessary, even if it is your opinion that the man committed the crime.  This is the only way we can avoid wrongful convictions in the current justice system.

The causes of wrongful conviction are many, and they include emotional juries. The number one cause, however, is eyewitness testimony.

Neil deGrasse Tyson once said,

Tyson was actually called for jury duty on a couple of occasions and was dropped both times as a potential juror. The first time they excused him from serving on a jury, it had been after this conversation:

Lawyer: “I see you’re an astrophysicist. What’s that?”

Tyson: “Astrophysics is the laws of physics, applied to the universe—the Big Bang, black holes, that sort of thing.”

Lawyer: “What do you teach at Princeton?”

Tyson: “I teach a class on the evaluation of evidence and the relative unreliability of eyewitness testimony.”

He was immediately excused. Why? Because the majority of cases in the US rely on eyewitness testimony and with Tyson on the jury, they knew they wouldn’t get a conviction.

Here are a few things to consider about eyewitness testimony:

  1. Eyewitness testimony is what is happening when people insist they have “found God”, witnessed a miracle, had their prayers answered, been abducted by aliens, seen a ghost, el chupacabra, Bigfoot or Nessie.
  2. Continually, studies on eyewitness testimony show that it’s a 50/50 toss up, whether or not the eyewitness is correct.
  3. 72% of all wrongful convictions that have been overturned with DNA testing, were based on false eyewitness testimony.

It’s an unsettling thought, the idea that our memory is only reliable half the time and we really have no idea which half it is. It being unsettling, however, does not make it any less true.

Have you ever been discussing old times with a friend or a family member and gotten into a debate over whose version of events was right? Maybe it’s a Christmas dinner where Grandma burned the potatoes, but your brother is sure it was the brussels sprouts that had been burned. Both of you are perfectly certain of your version, but someone has definitely recalled what happened incorrectly. Maybe even both of you have. This scenario is so common, there’s probably not one of you reading this who has not experienced it.

Our memories are not video cameras that record the events in our lives exactly. They often replace old information with new information, and memories morph over time. For instance, taking the example of Grandma’s brussels sprouts. Maybe your brother is right, she did burn the brussels sprouts, but you recall it being the potatoes because recently at Thanksgiving, someone did burn the potatoes and you told the story of grandma’s burned sprouts at that dinner, and the two became jumbled in your mind.

There are many other ways in which your memory can be jarred into remembering something wrong over something right.

Memory can be drastically affected by stress and strong emotions. If you’re witnessing a crime, chances are, you are experiencing stress and strong emotions. You might be terrified or sad or you might feel an overwhelming anger and a desire to have someone pay for the crime. These are powerful emotions that can, when you see a line-up, cause you to find one feature of a man familiar and think, “that’s him! Get him!” without assessing anything else about the men in front of you. At that moment, you begin to associate that man’s face with the crime that has been committed and any time a cop shows you a photo of him, you will pick him out.

Pressure, exhaustion and a desire for this all to just be over can also lead you to identify the wrong person. A small glimmer of hope that the police have brought in the real perpetrator will make you stretch what you recognize just to have this part of the investigation and trial be over and done with.

Suggestions by police can affect your memory as well. If you’ve ever watched a crime drama on TV, you’ve seen a cop slide over a mug shot of a single man and ask, “Is this the man who hurt you?”. This happens all the time in real investigations and is, in itself, suggestive. Sometimes cops will offer you a whole page or booklet of photos, but one photo is different in some way. Maybe he’s the only black man in the set of photos, maybe he’s the only one with a beard as you described the real perpetrator to have, or maybe the police have marked his picture in some way (which they do). This is also leading and happens more than any of us should feel comfortable with.

Our vision can also play tricks on us. Even perfect 20/20 vision deteriorates drastically at a distance or in poor light.

Sometimes, there is no reason that can be pinpointed. Sometimes, our memory just sucks.

Take into consideration the case of Jennifer Thompson-Cannino. In 1984, as she slept alone in her apartment, a man broke in. She was awoken, saw him in her room and began screaming. The man then held a knife to her throat to shut her up and she offered him anything he wanted to leave her alone. Face to face, they spoke. He said he was not interested in money and proceeded to rape her. Horrified, Jennifer refused to let this man get away with what he was doing. She vowed, while she was being attacked, to study this man’s face. Every last mark, scar and expression. She studied his face the entire time she was being attacked and was beyond confident she could identify this man in a court of law. Jennifer was not a drug user. She was a respected and accomplished college student. She was healthy both physically and mentally and she swore she could recall that face like she could her own mother’s.

Able to escape her apartment with her rapist still there, she ran and found police. The perpetrator left and raped another woman nearby.

Jennifer reported her crime and after evidence was collected and a composite sketch of her attacker was made, the police laid out a photo line-up of men, including Ronald Cotton who was identified in a tip that came in that he resembled the sketch. The police, correctly following procedure, told her the man they were questioning may or may not be in the photos.

Jennifer studied the photos carefully and picked Ronald.

When asked if she was sure, she assured the detective that she was indeed.

Ronald was brought in for questioning. He gave a mistaken alibi, having mixed up which weekend was in question. This made the police think he was lying.

Ronald Cotton was put in a physical lineup shortly after, from which he was pointed out by Jennifer (who, as we know, had chosen his photo as well).

She was absolutely sure.

The evidence was presented at trial. A sane, sober woman told the jury that as she was attacked by this man, she studied every feature of his face and had no doubt in her mind that Ronald Cotton was that man. The prosecution then also brought to light that he had “lied” about his alibi for that evening.

Imagine yourself on that jury. Imagine listening to 22 year old, pretty, responsible, ambitious, blond Jennifer tearfully point out Ronald as her attacker and explain in detail the horror of her attack. Imagine what you would feel in that moment. Likely, rage would be building up inside of you. Sympathy for Jennifer would grow. Then you would be told that Ronald made up a story for his alibi, which was proven to be wrong. Ronald appeared to be a liar. Imagine yourself in that situation. It would appear that Ronald was guilty, no? Most people in today’s world, save for Neil deGrasse Tyson and a handful of Innocence Project volunteers, would have found him guilty and you can hardly blame them for that, can you?

Not surprisingly, Mr. Cotton was found guilty and sentenced to life plus 54 years for the rape of Jennifer Thompson.

In prison, some time later, Cotton came across a man named Bobby Poole who was serving time for rape. Cotton wondered if he had been the real rapist due to the similarities in their appearances. Prison staff would often mix the two of them up. Cotton even heard a story from another inmate, that Poole had admitted to the rape of Jennifer and the second victim. Several appeals and retrials later, however, Cotton’s sentence still stood.

It wasn’t until 1994 that the DNA evidence, still preserved in police custody, was tested and proved beyond any doubt that the real offender was Poole, and not Cotton. After 10 years in prison, Cotton was freed and the charges were dropped.

In shock, Jennifer became riddled with guilt. She found Ronald and apologized profusely. The two became good friends and wrote a book together about their ordeal. Picking Cotton is a must-read, and this talk by Jennifer and Ronald is moving, to say the least:

False eyewitness testimony can also be attributed to perceived incentives for the eyewitness. People lie. People lie more often when there is an incentive. Incentives that can make an eyewitness lie can vary from taking the heat off themselves or the real perpetrator with whom the eyewitness may be close, to shorter sentences for the role they may have played in the crime, to monetary reasons, such as insurance claims or alimony/child support.

A case that perfectly illustrates this, and that takes us back to the 1800s and proves, horrifyingly, how long wrongful convictions have been going on, is the Boorn Brothers case.

In 1812, Russell Colvin disappeared from Manchester, Vermont. The community suspected the Boorn Brothers had done something to Colvin, who was their sister’s husband. They had made no secret of their dislike for Colvin, and it seemed to fit that the brothers may have done something to him. After visions and excavations and crazy stories, the authorities unearthed some random items from a hole in the ground where the brothers’ uncle said he had been led in a vision, and claimed the body of Colvin was buried. No human remains were found but Colvin’s wife identified the items as having belonged to him. The police were sure they were onto something.

Shortly afterwards, the barn near this excavation site burned down and bone fragments were discovered elsewhere on their property. Doctors identified the bones as human and it was assumed the brothers had burned the barn down to destroy evidence. One of the Boorn brothers was arrested and jailed while the other had a warrant out for his arrest.

In prison, Jesse Boorn’s cellmate began cooperating with police, and told them that Jesse had confessed to the murder of Russell Colvin. The cellmate agreed to testify to this in exchange for his own release from prison.

Stephen Boorn felt his best avenue to survive this, was to confess as he thought his brother had.

The brothers were convicted and in spite of their “cooperation” and “confessions”, they were sentenced to death. They sat on death row awaiting their executions, knowing that they were innocent of the crime they’d been punished for. It was just a month before the first execution was to take place that Russell Colvin, the supposed murder victim, returned to Manchester, Vermont, very much alive. The brothers were freed just in time.

This case includes the false identification of belongings, by Colvin’s wife, who needed to have her husband declared dead in order for her to receive child support from her kid’s real father. It also included false identification of bones by doctors who, upon further examination declared the bones to be of animal origin. It also included false testimony from a jailhouse snitch, in prison for forgery, who perjured himself on the witness stand in exchange for his own freedom.

You can read about this story in Wilkie Collins’ The Dead Alive, which is free in the Kindle store. It’s based on the Boorn brothers case although small things were changed, such as names, etc.

Yes, that was 1820. Yes, that was a long time ago. Yes, we were less sophisticated as far as evidence collecting and police procedures go. But that doesn’t change anything. Ronald Cotton’s ordeal ended in 1994 and was ultimately through no error of the police or prosecution. But then, there is this case, which ended in 2014… after forty years:

In Ricky Jackson’s case, there was also a codefendant, Wiley Bridgeman who had also just spent 40 years in prison. These men went down when they were teenagers and are emerging from behind prison doors in their 50s. They have had many things taken from them: their ability to have a family, to build a career, to buy a home, to have grandchildren, pets, vacations, raises, and everything in between. They were, in no uncertain terms, robbed of their lives while still living.

What convicted them? The testimony of a 13-year-old boy who has, forty years later, recanted his testimony. The 13-year-old child claimed to have been coerced by police – not at all uncommon in any state – to testify that the men had killed another man.

Even worse is the case of Wilburt Jones, a Louisiana man who was released from prison in 2017 after spending 46 years behind bars. The case against him rested entirely on the identification by the victim three months after the crime occurred. If Jennfier Thompson had been wrong about her identification just days after the crime had happened, what would three months do to a person’s memory?

Had Wilburt Jones gotten the death penalty, he would be dead right now. Troy Davis wasn’t so lucky. In his case, 34 witnesses were called to testify against him. He was sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. Years later, many of those witnesses came forward to claim they had been coerced by police who were fighting for justice for one of their own. They simply just wanted someone to pay and they’d made up their mind that the someone was Troy Davis. In the years leading up to his execution date, Davis filed for appeal after appeal and finally got a stay of execution for a short amount of time while the evidence was reviewed.

Witnesses clearly indicated that they were recanting their testimony and had been coerced.

The case that had been mounted against Davis was entirely based on eyewitness testimony and the Innocence Project, wrongful conviction activist community, and Amnesty International fought loud, hard and long. Yours truly was part of this.

A social media campaign was launched called I Am Troy Davis that captured the attention of the world. In the end, he was executed, in spite of the fact that doubt had been cast on the prosecution’s case. Whether he was innocent or not should play no part in whether you think this was a miscarriage of justice. The only thing that matters here is the doubt. If there is doubt, even just a little, then there is a chance an innocent man has been killed.

The death penalty is barbaric and never, ever under any circumstances is it anything short of cold-blooded, premeditated murder, even in cases of absolute guilt with caught-on-tape and DNA evidence. However, a case in which a man is slaughtered when doubt exists? That’s just plain killing for sport… and it’s happening on your dime if you’re an American taxpayer. It is state-sanctioned sport killing, like shooting fish in a barrel. The funding you wish could go to the lacklustre American education system? Yeah. That money helped kill Troy Davis.

A Youtube Playlist about his case:

While many people call for reform in how we deal with eyewitnesses, I don’t think eyewitness testimony should be considered evidence at all. With an accuracy rate of 50%, you might as well enter a flip of a coin into evidence. It has the same odds of being correct.

72% of all wrongful convictions have been due to bad eyewitness testimony. It appears to me that making eyewitness testimony no longer admissible in court, would save a whole lot of money, time and innocent people in prison and potentially put to death. It wouldn’t just protect the rights of those in poorer communities or members of minorities. It also protects your own rights. OJ had the money to buy a lawyer who could illustrate reasonable doubt to a jury of regular people. You may not.

Lucky for some of these innocent men and women, one of OJ’s lawyers started the Innocence Project, which I highly recommend you consider either donating to or volunteering for.

Read other parts in the series here:

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Image: Copyright Courtney Heard

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tawreos

    What about those of us that didn’t care one way or another about the OJ verdict? Despite the media frenzy at the time, there were a few of us.

  • It was a landmark case that set many precedents and highlighted many serious issues in the criminal justice system – issues that often result in death. There is a lot to take away from this case that thinking humans ought to care about.

  • Wile F. Coyote

    I took a psychology class with about twenty other students when I was a high school senior. One day a month or so into the semester, halfway through a class period, the door at the back of the room burst open and one of the most notorious school hotheads came through, yelling at our teacher behind her lectern at the opposite side of the room. He came on hard and in a couple of seconds grabbed that podium her class notes were on and flung it across the front of the room, in front of all the seated students. After a couple more shouted threats and insults, he turned and left almaost as quickly as he’d come, slamming the door behind him.

    There was total shocked silence until a few seconds after his departure, and then the room filled with an outburst of student reaction. Our teacher eventually commanded silence, and then instructed us to put pen to paper and describe what we saw. What was the intruder’s name? The color of his shirt? Solid or patterned? Was he wearing jeans? Slacks? What color? Was there anything unusual about his appearance? What sort of things did he yell at the teacher? Did he use profanity? Did he issue threats? If so, what did he threaten? Did he say exactly why he was acting out, what precisely had set him off?

    As I recall it, the student’s name was the only question the class unanimously agreed upon. I can’t say whether any question was agreed upon by greater than half the class, but I (think) I remember accurately that most of the questions had fewer than ten answers which agreed. Over the years I have had a number of opportunities to observe the unreliability of eye witness recollection, and I think that classroom experience tuned my antennae in a way it might well not have been attuned without the experience.

    I sat on a jury where witness testimony was not considered sufficient to return a guilty verdict, even though the table talk after the initial straw poll was that the defendant was most def a drug dealer, as charged. There were scales, and baggies, an AR-15, a monitor in the room with all these items that was connected solely to cameras at front and rear of the house the defendant was alleged to deal from by the undercover cop eye witness. But insufficient evidence to put the defendant in the house when a deal(s) was going down. This was less to do with inaccurate recall by the undercover and more with poor judgement by the DA who brought the case, but I was proud of my jury members nonetheless. Although it did take ten of us four hours to talk two out of convicting because they — and we — “knew” the dude was guilty, shitty-to-zero evidence be damned.

  • Foxglove

    Excellent blog!

    One of my favorites: the famous “Monkey Business Illusion” video.


  • Tawreos

    With all due respect the trial and the outcome did not interest me. That precedents were set and issues highlighted is fine, but I am not a student of the law. Other people find that interesting, and I am glad they do, but I do not. To imply that my disinterest in one subject does not make me a thinking person is an odd statement for you to make, or are we only supposed to be nice to theists?

  • Otto

    You of course can be as disinterested in the case as you want, I just don’t understand your original comment asking “What about those of us that didn’t care one way or another about the OJ verdict?”… if you are not interested what is your point of the question?

  • Tawreos

    It was presented as you either accepted the verdict or you got mad about the verdict and I was pointing out a third option of disinterest either way.

  • Otto

    The premise as presented was

    If you would have agreed with the verdict that jury came to, you probably have a very good understanding of what reasonable doubt means. If you would have found him guilty, then you would likely be an emotional juror and the chances of you serving on a jury that might accidentally put away an innocent man are pretty good.

    Therefore if you were disinterested and did not care to know anything about the case I don’t think you fit either one … and I still don’t know what your point is.

  • ThaneOfDrones

    I had to appear for jury selection once in the 1990s. The prosecutor planned to use DNA evidence, which was fairly new at the time, and so was throwing out all potential jurors who could even spell DNA (slight exaggeration for effect).

  • PDF

    As far as memory, I was just listening to something about this on the most recent 2 episodes of Malcom Gladwell’s podcast. I would highly recommend listening if you haven’t already, it is very interesting.

    Look at the current season (season 3), episodes 3 and 4.


  • Oh, I strongly disagree here. While it’s true that witnesses can be unreliable when it comes to identifying a stranger, that doesn’t mean they’re unreliable altogether. When a woman says “I was raped *by someone I know,*” odds are very good she is telling the truth. And if we instead decided to disbelieve all witness testimony, we’d end up almost never convicting any rapists, because they don’t rape in front of cameras.

  • Steve Williams

    I saw this years ago (I’ve still got it on my computer) and whilst it’s funny I’m ashamed to say I didn’t see it the first time around. How could I miss a bleedin’ moonwalking gorilla?! I definitely don’t rely on ‘eyewitness testimony’ any more, even my own.

  • Foxglove

    Actually, I had an awful experience one time. I was working in a bookstore, and as I recall, a customer had shoplifted something, a calculator maybe. One of my colleagues and I had got a good look at the guy, and lo and behold, only about week later, he came back into the store for something. So straightaway we phoned the cops. And just as the cop car pulled up outside, my colleague and I took another look at the guy, looked at each other and realized it was most decidedly not the same guy. So we went running out of the store to cut the cops off. Most apologetic. Assured them it was a case of mistaken identity. The cops weren’t the least bit pleased with us, but fortunately they took our word for it and drove off. Huge embarrassment narrowly avoided, getting a guy hauled in over something like that.

  • Steve Williams

    Thankfully I’ve never had anything happen in real life. Imagine if it went through the courts and he had received a community service sentence of thirty days cleaning toilets.

  • This is awesome. I think all students should be subject to a similar lesson. I’m so glad to hear that the jury you served on did the right thing. Thank you for sharing this awesome comment!

  • Otto

    Which is actually a likely outcome considering the way prosecutors work, they would likely hold a big consequence over his head unless he agreed to plead guilty, and given it would just be his word over the other 2 he would be taking a huge risk taking it to court. Many defendants just take the minor punishment and falsely admit guilt rather than taking the chance of losing big. Regrettably this is what our courts have become.

  • Oh yeah, the first time I saw that I was so shocked! It’s such a great lesson, though.

  • No, I was suggesting that you think about it more being a thinking person. It’s an issue that affects everyone. I find it hard to understand why anyone would be disinterested by it.

  • That is scary.

  • Thank you! I will check it out.

  • However, they do leave behind DNA evidence and sometimes people lie.

  • Cozmo the Magician

    I have spent many years working in a field whose job it is to manipulate people’s perceptions. It is amazing how much the success of a magic trick can hinge on what people remember most from it. And there are many many way to manipulate peoples memories. There are well documented methods of making it likely that people will NOT remember certain things, or helping them manufacture memories of their own.

    Anybody who agrees with the phrase “seeing is believing” has never been to a good magic show (;

    Ironically, some of the easiest people to fool are those who work in the sciences or even law enforcement. They are taught to rely on observation and memory.

  • Brian Curtis

    “I saw it with my own eyes.”
    “Yes, that’s the problem. Did you happen to record it on your smartphone?”

  • DNA evidence just tells you if sex happened, not if the victim consented to it. Most cases hinge on this; the rapist isn’t dumb enough to say s/he didn’t have sex with the victim, just that the victim wanted it. Though of course there are also cases where the victim didn’t know to get a rape kit done right away, where the rape kit couldn’t be tested before the trial, or where the assault didn’t leave any DNA because it was penetration with an object or some other atypical rape.

    Sometimes people lie. But it’s a lot less common than people telling the truth, by a factor of something like 20 to 1. That doesn’t seem like a good reason to throw out all eyewitness statements altogether.

  • Robert Alvarez

    Having worked in law enforcement for over 20 years I believe the premise of what you wrote is misleading. Of course mistakes can be made by eyewitnesses, but I have always found them more often than not to be correct. Your premise fails to note that most likely there are tons more cases of people in jail who were put there on eye witness testimony that was accurate. Eyewitness testimony, for the most part, works. To blatantly say that eyewitness testimony should not be admissible in court borders on ridiculous. Though I would agree that corroborating testimony should be necessary to convict in perhaps death penalty cases. Of course people can make mistakes when they witness something, but to disregard their testimony because of the possibility they could be wrong is dangerous.

  • Otto

    What it comes down to… is what is the goal of the Criminal courts? Should it be to get as many convictions as possible, and if a fair number of innocent people get wrongly caught up in the system that is just what has to happen to get more actual criminals off the street? Or should it be to be as sure as reasonably possible that only guilty people go to jail, and if that means some criminals slip through the cracks that is the price we pay as a society for trying to keep innocent people from being wrongly convicted?

    I am not for getting rid of eyewitness testimony either, but I do think cases built on only eyewitness testimony are problematic and eyewitnesses testimony is given too much weight.

  • Robert Alvarez

    I agree. I don’t recall working a single case that was broken with eyewitness testimony that was not later corroborated by other evidence. Eyewitness testimony should, for the most part, be used to identify the suspect, and then other evidence can be found to convict him. But lacking evidence to support why the eyewitness should not be believed, why should they not be believed?

  • Robert Alvarez


  • Robert Alvarez

    And the suspects don’t lie? You take all the evidence, including eyewitness testimony, and based on the totality of it all a group of people make a decision. That is the best you can do. To start deciding based on skewed stats that are highly misinterpreted that you should not believe people because people are not to be believed is nonsense. Take it all in and make the call. Yes, you can get it wrong. But you will get it right most of the time or you can simply decide you can’t make the call. Or you could just remain paralyzed and let your fears rule how we make these decisions. I guess we could do that too.

  • Otto

    >>>”But lacking evidence to support why the eyewitness should not be believed, why should they not be believed?”

    It is not a just a matter of either the witness was lying or not lying, the person may be mistaken, which is usually worse than lying because they believe what they say, and often passionately so. Again I will ask…which goal in my previous post should we be aiming for?

    I am a private investigator, though I don’t claim to have as much experience as you do in criminal matters. I did recently investigate a case where a female accused a former boyfriend of sexual assault but only went to the police after 4 days had passed. She claimed she went to his house 4 days before and he hit her and raped her. He said that he had not seen her for 3 weeks and spent the day at home. She had some bumps and bruises that she claimed happened at the time of the assault. He was indicted. Now you could say that the the physical evidence corroborated her testimony, but without her say so who is to really know how she got the injuries? Should she just be believed until evidence can be found to show she is lying?

  • Robert Alvarez

    Ask the #metoo people what they think about that one and get back to me. lol You take it a bit too far, I think. By that mentality nothing without concrete proof could be examined as a possible crime. As my daughter would say when I accused her of something when she was younger “show me the video, or it never happened”. And remember, you can indict a ham sandwich. An indictment means little. Based on your details I would have submitted the case the DA’s office and le them decide. They are the ones that have to prove the case anyway. There is usually a some corroboration on a case like that in order to take it to trial. But I do get your point in all this. It is important that we are aware of the possibility of convicting the innocent. All we can do is the best we can do to prevent that. We still have to move forward with cases as presented and work them until we make the best determination we can. I arrested an innocent man once, even though all the evidence (including his confession) pointed to him. Luckily I discovered how wrong I was the day after I arrested and he was released from custody. But I had more than enough evidence to convict him and send him to prison for 10 years. Which, as it turned out, might have just saved his life. He died of a drug overdose shortly afterwards.

  • Magic is such a great way to teach kids to be skeptical, too. Get them a magic set!

  • Exactly.

  • I guess it depends on if you’d want to be wrongfully convicted or not. We have no way of knowing who is lying and who is not outside of evidence corroborating their story, so I am skeptical of those statistics.

  • How do you know it was accurate without corroborating evidence?

  • Cozmo the Magician

    One of my greatest joys was when I was able to teach magic in an after school program. Tons of fun.

  • Robert Alvarez

    Who said there was not corroborating evidence? You know more often than not we find out that the witness was right. WAY MORE OFTEN than not the police get the right guy. The stats you show were statistics related to wrongful convictions and death row cases. They say nothing about what is going on in the rest of the cases that go right. Without statistical evidence comparing those two your premise is skewed. I am against the death penalty and certainly against wrongful convictions. But let’s not pretend that is the norm in the justice system because it isn’t. Not even close. A good majority of those cases you read about where cases were overthrown or reversed as wrongful convictions had more to do with procedure and law issues than they did guilt or innocence. The cases you cited are extremely rare. The system is not perfect in the same way any system involving people can’t be. The best we could do is get rid of the death penalty to give chance to those that are innocent to re-plead their case.

  • I’m not saying “let’s convict people entirely on eyewitness testimony.” But it should be allowed to be part of the case! Discounting it altogether would mean basically agreeing as a society that rape is now legal because we’re never going to have enough evidence to put a case together.

  • Otto

    >>>”You take it a bit too far, I think. By that mentality nothing without concrete proof could be examined as a possible crime.

    I am not sure I understand what you think I have taken too far. I have no problem with examining possible crimes. I have a problem with making a formal accusation of a crime when the evidence is pretty shaky. You could argue that it will all come out in the wash, but we know the system is faulty and charging people with crimes has its own consequences even if the person is found not guilty, or if charges are later dismissed. The family of the person accused in this case had to pay thousands of dollars to attorneys and my investigation. The defendant had to live for almost a year with the very real thought that he could go to prison for years and be labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life…and it all came down to his word or hers. ‘Should he even have been charged’ is a question we should be asking ourselves. An indictment means a lot to the person being indicted, and I mean no offense to you but the lackadaisical attitude of ‘an indictment means little’ is in my opinion a large part of the problem.

    I keep wanting you to answer the question in my opening post to you because I think everyone involved in the criminal justice system should ask themselves that question. The basic philosophy of the system should be talked about and discussed.

  • Robert Alvarez

    The “What should the aim of courts be?”. Every sentence I have offered answers this. Of course it should be that we arrest only the guilty and never the innocent. Is it ever going to be that? Hell no. Every investigation (and you know this if you are a P.I.) is based on the totality of the case. I have worked murder cases and arrested people on totally circumstantial evidence and put murderers away in that fashion. This isn’t TV land where suspects leave clues everywhere. Proof is subjective and it us up to the courts to decide. And they overwhelmingly get it right. Just because you can point to a few cases where it might have not happened does not mean you throw out the system. When people are involved you are going to make mistakes. But that is why the system has built in different levels checks and balances. For all it’s worth I have not heard of someone come up with a better one. If you have one I’d like to hear about it.

  • Otto

    >>>”Of course it should be that we arrest only the guilty and never the innocent. Is it ever going to be that? Hell no.”

    My question already assumes we will not be perfect, the question has to do with on which side should we err… that being the case.

    >>>”Just because you can point to a few cases where it might have not happened does not mean you throw out the system.”

    I haven’t heard anyone say we should, but can adjustments be made?

    I do agree our system is pretty decent, but we do also lock up a very high percentage of our citizens, more than any country in the world. You can’t tell me there aren’t things we could do better.

    >>>”Every investigation (and you know this if you are a P.I.) is based on the totality of the case.”

    And sometimes the totality of the case is one person’s word against another per my example.

  • Robert Alvarez

    Case that were just one word against another left my office without corroboration of some type. But yes, we are addicted to locking people up and need to address that. But that is another issue apart from the issue of wrongful convictions.

  • Your case history samples don’t discredit eye witness testimony either in a court of law or in the case of objective supernatural experience.

    Even with the odds at 50/50 for or against which you argue in favour of, and possibly overestimate, there’s still a fifty percent chance skeptics are wrong which doesn’t say much as the margin of error is still too high.

  • Good comment

  • What part of Robert Alvarez’s comments don’t you understand?

    I don’t have a problem with anything he’s stated here.

    He’s been concise and clear.

  • As for Neil deGrasse Tyson he misses one of the main principals of science, that of personal observation.

  • Otto

    I think I laid out my points rather clearly as well. You on the other hand offer nothing…as usual

  • The skeptic stance is to have healthy doubt in something until it is proven. How can that be wrong?

  • You cannot rest a single conclusion on personal observation, however. Hence the peer review process.

  • OutsideLookingIn

    I like this post very much as there is a lot of support that eyewitness testimony is often quite unreliable. I read a book on memory a while back where it asked people to think about where they were when Sept. 11th happened in America. One of the authors was absolutely convinced that he was in a particular place and doing a particular thing. Later on, he found conclusive evidence that his recollection was completely wrong. That’s significant because you always hear people say, “I’ll never forget where I was that day…” Of course, the book talked about how we often build our memories by adding new details or confusing it with someone else’s story or whatever.

    I did find your use of the OJ trial to be confusing as in 2018 and looking back, I’d say in the U.S. that a majority of people of all races seem to pretty much believe he did it. So, it’s hard to disregard that intervening time and see where you state that if you would’ve found him guilty, then you would’ve essentially been a bad juror. Of course, digging deeper, I see in the context of the rest of the post that you’re referring to Barry Schenck of Project Innocence who worked to discredit the DNA evidence. The issue was how poorly the LAPD collected and handled the evidence. Based on their terrible practices (in an admittedly new field of DNA evidence) and the absolutely understandable disdain that the African American community had for the LAPD, it makes sense that there would be reasonable doubt and that it would mean that “not guity” would be the right approach.

    Anyway, thought that might need more context than it got to help frame the rest of the post.

  • OutsideLookingIn

    As a reference, here’s a link to show that the majority of whites and blacks in the U.S. believe he was guilty (just to show I didn’t completely pull that out of nowhere):


  • anxionnat

    Neil DeGrasse Tyson is right: nobody (prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges) likes to have scientists on the jury. I think this is because we are trained to think of multiple hypotheses, rather than being limited to “guilty” or “not guilty.” My sister (BS in Physics) and brother-in-law (PhD and lots of postdoc experience in Physics) were recently rejected for jury duty on a child abuse case. What in hell does study of Physics have to do with child abuse? Several years ago, back in the early 1990s, when I was in grad school in the Biological Sciences, I and a fellow would-be juror who was a veterinarian, were rejected for jury duty. The case was a bust of a meth lab. The prosecutor questioned each of us about our professions and wanted to know about our academic training. In the vet’s case and mine, we had both had basic chemistry, organic chemistry, and biochem, a year of each. She’d also had training in pharmacy, which I lacked. Both of us were rejected, by agreement of the prosecutors and defense attorney. We walked out together, and by the time we’d gotten to the parking lot we agreed that people with scientific backgrounds were commonly rejected as jurors. That had happened to her once before. You’d think that well-educated people would be preferred as jurors–but not so. However (and this was from my jury experience noted above), the spouses, children, and close friends of cops regularly get on juries, when one would think they’d be rejected. They are, in fact, *preferred*. I got rejected for a cannabis case in the 1970s, because I was under 30, and the prosecutor didn’t want any young people on the jury. He came right out and said this. I stayed through the trial. Half of the jurors were family members, friends, coworkers, etc of cops. A police dispatcher was the jury foreman. Was this a fair trial? The guy went to jail for 19 years, for a small joint, that he was smoking in his own home. All of these examples of scientists and young people being rejected as jurors happened in liberal California.