According to the Innocence Project, “Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in 72% of convictions overturned through DNA testing.” I completely believe this, because I’ve lived it. I make a lousy witness.
When I was 17 years old I worked for a small travel agency. My desk was right by the front entrance. One morning I came in and the manager asked to speak to all of us. He said there was a guy going around to all the local travel agencies and buying plane tickets with a different fake ID each time, then going to the airports and cashing in these tickets, leaving the travel agencies to eat the cost. He’d managed to get thousands of dollars that way so far. Our manager suspected (I can’t remember why) that that man had bought a ticket from us, and that he was going to come in and pick it up some time this morning. When that happened, we were to proceed as normal, but very slowly, and I was to notify him and a coworker was to call the police immediately.
This was certainly not going to be a routine day at the office. Tensions were running high. At around noon the guy walked in. I referred him to one of the agents. I quietly got up and went to the manager’s office to inform him. Then I sat back down at my desk and pretended to work. The manager walked toward the front door. I think the guy picked up on our nervousness, so he leaped up and ran for the exit. The manager was blocking his way and they got into a scuffle. This was right in front of my desk. I was paralyzed with fear. I remember seeing the sweat on the guy’s forehead and his wild eyes as he struggled to get out the door.
Finally he made good his departure, with my manager right on his heels. This was no mean feat because my manager walked with a cane. He proceeded to use the metal tip of that cane to smash in the guy’s windshield as he drove away. The police were taking this guy seriously. They broke out the helicopter for this one, and he was finally apprehended, still in the car, plane ticket in hand, his lap covered with broken glass.
We were all asked to write police reports. My adrenaline was still pumping, but I wrote a detailed report. (I can never be accused of being lost for words.) I was the person who got closest to the man. I saw him sweat. The fight happened mere feet from me. I described him as having light brown, curly hair, blue eyes, and a sort of medium complexion. I said he was about 6 feet tall, and wearing jeans and a light colored t-shirt.
The next day the story was all over the news. It included the guy’s mug shot. He had straight, dark brown hair and dark brown eyes. He had a swarthy complexion and he was about 5’8”. In the news footage he had been wearing a dark shirt and khaki pants. I was wrong in every single detail. So much for my observation skills. Fortunately my coworkers descriptions were closer to the truth, and yet not 100 percent accurate either.
About a year later the case finally came to trial. The prosecutor asked me to testify. I called her and said I now lived in a different city, but I would gladly cooperate. However, I asked her if she had read my police report. I told her that based on my description I might not be the best witness for the case. She agreed. She told me she’d let me know if she changed her mind, but that she wouldn’t be needing me at this time after all. Good call.
The man was convicted of his crimes. even though he didn’t look anything like I thought, I am sure they got the right man. His finger prints were all over several of those fraudulent plane tickets.
Ever since then, I have never taken eyewitness testimony seriously. I think of myself as an observer of the world, and if I can screw something up that dramatically, anyone can. Food for thought.