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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2002
So how come all of those eyewitnesses in the Washington, D.C.-area sniper shooting turned out to be so unreliable?
I mean the ones who didn't finally admit they were lying.
If they saw the guy, why couldn't they give a decent description, come up with a sketch? Huh?
I have learned the hard way, a couple of times, how tough being an eyewitness can be.
One occasion happened while I was testifying in court.
I was being asked about what I had observed in a case in which a man was accused of having assaulted two police officers.
I had seen the fight; there wasn't any doubt about it. I was in the police station drinking coffee when the defendant, who was drunk and resisting officers' attempts to book him, suddenly jumped on one of the cops and the three of them wound up in a free-for-all on the floor.
"How would you describe the defendant's demeanor?" asked the defense attorney.
"Obstinate," I said, adding that he was refusing to answer routine questions as he was booked.
"If he wasn't talking, how can you say he was obstinate?" the lawyer asked.
"He had his fists balled up," I said.
The attorney pointed out that there was a counter, about chest-high, between me and the defendant and, after some sarcastic references to X-ray vision, asked me how I knew that.
I was stumped.
The defendant was acquitted, benefitting from yet another example of the unreliability of eyewitness testimony.
How I had seen the unseeable bugged me as I walked the two blocks to the police station, stood behind the counter and saw what I had forgotten, a convex mirror near the ceiling providing a fish-eye view of everything that had gone on in the room.
Fifteen years later I was ribbing a prosecutor acquaintance in a Dade City coffee shop because one of his office's cases had blown up over identification issues.
As I looked right at him, he asked, "How tall am I?"
I guessed about 5 feet 8 inches.
"I'm 5-10," he said. "How much do I weigh?"
I was off by 35 pounds.
"Okay," I pointed out, noting that the case I was kidding him about involved a misidentification of eye color, "but at least I know your eyes are brown."
He leaned closer so his eyes were about 8 inches from mine.
They were green.
He made his point.
I have been accused of saying things on a witness stand that another reporter, a woman, said.
I have been identified as a murderer in a case I was covering (and, yes, I had an alibi).
A Times employee once identified me at a public event as another columnist, who is taller, thinner, doesn't have a beard and is African-American.
Eyewitness testimony generally comes from people who saw what they saw during emotionally charged situations, with very brief exposure, sometimes in poor lighting and with people who are deliberately trying to obscure identification.
DNA evidence shows that some women have even made erroneous eyewitness identifications of men who raped them, meaning there was more time and closeness (but higher stress levels) than occur in most criminal cases.
Ironically, juries are usually more ready to accept the testimony of a real or alleged eyewitness than they are tons of circumstantial evidence, although it is proven time after time that sometimes we report things we wanted to see or thought we should have seen rather than what we actually did see.
I have been fired upon by snipers. It is a jarring, disconcerting experience, probably even more so when it takes place outside the confines of war and in familiar circumstances in which one should feel safe.
It is not to say that eyewitness testimony in the D.C.-area shootings should be discounted, or that it might not ultimately provide the key to the case.
But witnesses are human and fallible, and dramatic and instant revelations are more the stuff of television drama than real life.
There is more than one way to catch a killer, and let's hope one of them works quickly.