Eye Witnesses: Is Seeing Really Believing?

After the recent execution of convicted murdered Troy Davis, the question of how trustworthy eyewitness accounts are has surfaced.  In the case of Davis, the one eyewitness who originally testified against him eventually recanted their testimony.

Now days, many a person has been convicted of a crime based upon the eyewitness testimony of just one person.  In a number of these cases, there was no direct evidence, only circumstantial and the eyewitness testimony was a significant part of the jury’s decision to convict.

Before I go any further, I want to clarify where I stand on the judicial system.  I’ve had many a friend tell me that I make the infamous hanging Judge Roy Bean look like a social do-gooder.  I’m a firm advocate of making prisons a place of punishment and a place to be avoided.  I’m also a firm believer in the death penalty.  As a matter of fact, I believe in public executions such as old fashioned hangings.  The image of watching a person jerk and shake at the end of a rope can make an indelible impression on young minds and help persuade them to avoid a life a crime.

Now, after stating my personal convictions about convictions, I do question the veracity of convicting someone on the testimony of just one eyewitness.  I’ve seen first-hand how an eyewitness account can be wrong.

As teenager in high school, I was arrested with my three best friends for suspicion of breaking and entering a home and grand theft (guns, TVs and other items).  We were hauled down to the police station and questioned for several hours.  Then we were placed in a line-up where a lady identified us as the four teens that broke into her neighbor’s house.  She even identified the car my friend was driving, a 1969 gold Oldsmobile Toronado with a black top. Once the witness pointed us out, the police proceeded to start booking us for the felony charges.  They had processed two of my friends and were in the process of fingerprinting me when they received a call from a couple of patrol officers that caught four teenagers in the process of breaking into another house and they found the guns taken from the first house in their possession.  It turned out we knew the other four guys and they were driving a gold Dodge Charger with a black roof.  I’ll be honest and say this was one of the scariest moments in my life.

Being arrested and convicted on the account of just one eyewitness is not always reliable.  In fact, our infinitely wise God also knew the fallibility of eyewitness accounts.  In Numbers 35:29-30 God gave the following instructions: ‘And these things shall be for a statute and rule for you throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.  If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.’

In today’s world of forensics, I would tend to rely more on the science and less on the testimony of just one person.  I only write this to caution anyone serving on a jury to consider everything before convicting someone of a crime especially one that is punishable by death.  But if you are thoroughly convinced of their guilt, then I’m all for throwing the book at them and sending them away for as long as possible.