Wednesday, August 21, 2013

My Miserable Failure as an Eyewitness

Don't you love this picture? Three raccoons with black masks accenting the white fur around their noses. See how... Oh! Wait a minute! There are only two raccoons here. The little guy behind them is a cat! A cat disguised as a raccoon, his black mask helping him blend in with the two fellows in the forefront of the photo. Oh, well. They do kind of look alike. Can't blame a person for making such a mistake, right? It's easy to do.

Unfortunately, it's extremely easy to do. People misidentify other people all the time, and I should know. I did it just last week.

Let me tell you about it.

My son, daughter-in-law, and grandkids were vacationing in Florida. During their absence, my youngest daughter and I were taking turns dogsitting their 13-year-old mixed breed mutt, Snipper.

It was Saturday evening, and my turn to check on the dog. My husband decided to come along with me, and on our arrival, we noticed an older model blue car parked in the driveway of the home next door to our son's place. Now, that house has been empty for months and is currently being maintained by a bank. The house across the street from my son is also empty, the owners having recently faced foreclosure.

Two empty houses. One unfamiliar blue car. Enough to make this mystery writer suspicious, especially when a man emerged from the upper end of the driveway, the part partially hidden by the side of the house. The man approached the front of the blue car, but stopped when he saw me standing in my son's driveway. We stared at each other for several long seconds, neither one of us saying anything. Then the man veered to his left and walked rapidly to the passenger side of the car where he again stopped and stared over the hood at me. With the car between us, I could only see him from the waist up, and what caught my attention the most about him were his dark eyes and his thick, jet black hair cut short on the sides but rising a good inch in height above the scalp line on the top of his head. 

I'll admit, this may sound pretty dumb to you, but as I gazed at the guy, the only thought crossing my mind was, I wonder if he uses mousse to make his hair stand up that way. 

My preoccupation with his hair didn't last long because the man suddenly turned away from the passenger door and headed back around the front of the car to the driver's side. In one swift movement, he opened the door and got into the car, then he started it up, backed out of the driveway, and took off down the street. This all happened so quickly that I never got a clear look at the car's license plate.

My husband was already in the backyard with the dog when the man left. I walked back to join him there. After discussing with him what I saw, I decided to call the police. After all, the house next door was empty. The man might have been trying to break in. Since my son's house would also be empty that night -- no one home but the dog, and he was too old and arthritic to be much of a match for a burglar -- I worried that we'd come back the next day to find the place ransacked, computer and other valuables gone, never to be found again.

The officer with whom I spoke on the phone asked me for a description of the man. I guessed him to be in his late teens or early twenties, a white man, maybe 5'9" tall, wearing a navy blue T-shirt. For the life of me, I couldn't say if he was wearing long pants or shorts or what color they were. All I could recall was seeing a flash of plaid when he climbed into the car. For all I knew, that could have been his underwear creeping up above low slung pants.

Not more than five minutes later, a police car pulled up outside my son's home. A very nice officer calmly listened to my story and then checked out the empty house. When he returned, he told me everything looked to be in order with no signs of a break-in. He said he would drive by several times during the night to check both that house and the empty one across the street, and when I told him my son's house would also be unattended over night, he promised to check it also. 

I figured that was the end of it, but maybe ten minutes later, the policeman returned, this time with a smile on his face. He told me he'd been checking around with the neighbors and discovered that the car belonged to one neighbor who'd been parking it overnight in that driveway for a couple of weeks after catching kids drinking beer behind the empty home's garage. The idea was to scare the kids off if they returned. 

According to the man's wife, I witnessed him leaving for work. She said he was probably checking me out because he'd never met me or my husband and wondered who we were. I was totally embarrassed about the whole thing, but the officer kindly assured me I'd done the right thing calling the police. 

I was even more embarrassed when I later learned from my daughter-in-law that the man in question was much older than I thought. The father of two grade school children, he was at least thirty years old, and probably older. 

So how good was I as an eyewitness? Not good at all. I misjudged the man's age by a good ten years. I couldn't describe his clothing. I didn't know the make or model of the car, or the license plate numbers. I was only thirty feet away from the man, and all I could really describe was his hair color and style. 

Considering the incident in hindsight, I believe my description of the man was unconsciously affected by a preconceived notion of who he was. First of all, the car was older, and it looked dusty and dirty, as if it hadn't seen a wash or a wax job in years. To me, a car like that automatically registers as belonging to someone who either doesn't give a darn what state his car is in as long as it runs, or someone who lacks the money to take care of his car. In my mind, both of those conditions apply to teenage boys.

Next, most of the break-ins and thefts that have occurred in my neighborhood have been committed by neighborhood teenagers. I'm not surprised when I hear of a bike being stolen from a nearby garage, or computers being stolen from a local school. It happens in every neighborhood today, and all too often teen boys are to blame.

So yes, I believe I automatically assumed the man was a teenager intent on stealing whatever he could from an empty house. I believe that assumption might have colored my view of the man's actions. Maybe he wasn't trying to hide from me when he walked around to the passenger side of the car. Maybe he wasn't driving too fast when he pulled out of the driveway. Maybe I saw only what I expected to see from a thief -- deception and a quick getaway.

One thing I know for sure, it's a good thing that police officer took the time to question the neighbors. I might have embarrassed myself, but at least I didn't get an innocent man in trouble with the law. 

BTW, did you know that 239 criminal convictions have been overturned by DNA testing since 1990? 73% of those convictions came as a result of faulty eyewitness testimony. Now that's something to think about.

(Statistics courtesy of The Innocence Project)

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9 comments:

  1. This happened twice. Once, during my class for the Austin Citizen's Police Academy, and once for the neighborhood patrol training. A person burst into the room suddenly, threatening violence, then ran out. We were then told it had been an exercise and to each write down a description. That was a disaster. It taught me how useless eyewitness testimony is!

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    1. Yes, the more I research the result of eyewitness testimony on criminal cases, the more untrustworthy I find it. Have you ever watched the TV series BRAIN GAMES? Week after week, they point out how the brain can be tricked into believing one thing while not even registering something equally obvious. Despite all the research, we continue to convict people on eyewitness testimony alone. Something has to change in our criminal justice system.

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    2. That sounds interesting! I'll look for the series.

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  2. Mary, I definitely would be a poor witness. The standing joke around this house is it took me three days to realize my husband had shaved off his beard. You'd think, as a writer, I would be more aware of my surroundings and changes, but I'm not. It's rather embarrassing.

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    1. My son-in-law said the same thing to me: "But you're a writer! You should be more observant!" Sorry, but sometimes we all get it wrong. :)

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  3. I'm a terrible witness. I have a great deal of trouble with facial recognition - have to meet someone several times before I'm likely to recognize them.

    As a kid, I was nearly the target of an abduction. I'd been playing with my friend Carolyn; we'd just split up, and she was walking home in one direction while I walked home in the other.

    A car pulled up beside me, and a man asked for directions. He sad he couldn't hear me and asked me to move closer. I nearly did.

    That's when Carolyn came charging up the street shouting, "RUN! He tried to grab me!"

    The car took off. The next day a girl was abducted two streets over, and was later found murdered.

    Carolyn gave one heck of a good description. I was useless. I looked at the police sketch, courtesy of Carolyn and a police artist, and I said it didn't look all that much like the man. But when they caught him (unfortunately many years and many children later), that drawing bore an uncanny resemblance.

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    1. What a story, Nancy! Thank goodness Carolyn yelled at you -- you might have become his next victim. I do hope he's rotting in hell today.

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  4. Sorry I'm so late chiming in, but what happened to you is so common. I once attended a conference where an unexpected guest showed up at the hotel. He was rather notorious and not liked by all. I heard someone say, "I hope no one assasinates him because with a writer's conference taking place they'll get 700 different versions of what happened." LOL Probably true.
    Marja McGraw

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  5. LOL! You're right, Marja, it probably is true! :)

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