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Monday, April 16, 2012

Innocent or Guilty: Don't Ask an Eye Witnesses

I ran across an interesting number statistic at the "Innocence Project" web site.: 289.

That's the total number of convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States.

Not per year or month...

That's ever, for all time.

Even more interesting is that of these 289 convictions overturned about 75% were originally convicted on faulty eyewitness testimony.

A more interesting statistic, cited here,  is a bit more chilling - during that same time frame tens of thousands of cases were prevented from moving forward because of DNA testing.

Eyewitness testimony is not terribly reliable as it turns out for several reasons.

For one - the "act" of remembering something can subtly change what's being remembered: it was a dark car but was it black?  Or dark blue?

For another, over time, memory fades.

Yet in the United States each year according to this article about 75,000 convictions occur each year based on eyewitness testimony along.

In a country with millions of prison inmates its hard to imagine relying on something so prone to error.

And while I am not suggesting that 75% of these 75,000 convictions are wrong - its still a troubling statistic taken in this context.

Couple this with the "Casey Anthony" problem of conviction on purely "circumstantial evidence" and you have the making of a real issue: a justice system based on a lot of faulty input.

Two hundred some years ago when there were no computers, cameras, cell phones, and so on eyewitness testimony was the best thing going.

But don't forget it was for things like Joe down the lane stealing Emma's pig for the most part.  There were far fewer sophisticated crimes like there are today, er, at least relatively sophisticated, e.g., bank card theft, etc.

In Europe this has been addressed to a degree by installing video surveillance cameras on every street corner.  Of course, now you're shy a little freedom because your being filmed all the time.

In the past I think that "morality" was a large factor in preventing crime. 

People knew that crime was wrong and from a young age were taught that it was also a sin that would likely send them to eternal hell.

But today things are far different.  There is no longer a "right" and "wrong" taught in school.  There is an epidemic drug problem, at least here in the US, that drives people to crime.  There's less stigma associated with crime - for one thing because far more things are crimes to begin with than 200 years ago.

For every crime there is not the "hate crime" version of that crime, for example.

In the past people had different things to worry about day-to-day as well.  If you didn't have a garden or farm or some means to acquire food then you starved - so a lot of your time was bound up in making sure that you had what you needed.

Given that sort of existence it would be easy to see if you weren't doing your job as well - if your fields weren't planted in the spring or you were seen sitting around all the time instead of tending your crops is would be fairly obvious that come fall you'd be hungry.

But that's not true today.  Today no one has any pressure on them whats-so-ever to "do the right thing."

Part of the problem I think is that the "justice system" is big business so it needs new customers.  So what better way to do it than to create a need by making more crimes...

As the modern age progresses I think hope that people will start to realize that they are giving up too much in this area.  But it seems unlikely - there are too many "so-and-so laws" to protect us from things that a "justice system" just cannot protect us from;

The things people might do if they think they can get away with it.

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