By Chester Campbell
I’ll soon be heading down to watch the 10 o’clock news for the latest word on murders and mayhem in the community. It’s a wonder that people still enjoy reading about our fictional bad guys with all the real ones staring at us nightly from the TV. I suppose it’s the hope that unlike the cases they see paraded across the screen, our mysteries will end with satisfying conclusions and villains behind bars or beneath gravestones.
One departure from the usual fare was Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” segment about an innocent man who was convicted largely by unreliable eyewitness testimony. I’ve heard and read opinions from investigators about the faulty recollections of witnesses to crimes, but I hadn’t come across professional studies on the subject.
The TV show interviewed psychologists and criminologists who talked about research that shows how people’s memories are affected by the way photographs are displayed and lineups presented.
The story involved a young white woman who was raped at age twenty-two. She had concentrated on the black rapist’s features so she would remember him afterward. She worked with detectives to create his likeness. When they showed her mug shots of six men who’d been arrested, she picked out one as the guilty party. When they brought the same man out in a lineup, she identified him again.
Largely on her testimony, the man was convicted and spent a dozen years in prison before a law professor got his DNA tested against evidence from the case. It showed him innocent. The DNA was matched to another man with similar features who had already been convicted of another rape.
Now the woman and the man she wrongly accused travel around the country speaking to lawyers and law enforcement personnel, asking them to use better techniques in presenting photographs and lineups. The psychologists said the victim’s incorrect memory was reinforced by the way the evidence was presented.
In The Marathon Murders, I had my PI Greg McKenzie caution his wife, “Don’t forget, eyewitness accounts can be notoriously unreliable.”
Have you run across any fictional cases where eyewitness testimony was crucial to solving a murder? Best to use caution in this area.
Read more about The Marathon Murders.