You go before a judge and jury, accused of a crime that you swear you never committed. You give your side of the story, telling them that you were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time when you got arrested, but you never even went to the crime scene. It was someone else. You just want to go on with your life.
Then an eyewitness comes forward and tells the court that they saw you at the scene. They claim to be 100 percent confident it was you. You can tell that the jury thinks you're trying to lie your way out of the charges. That witness testimony carries a lot of weight.
It's a nightmare scenario, right? It's gut-wrenching. How could the justice system get it so wrong? Does this actually happen?
A common problem
It does, and it's actually far more common than a lot of people realize. We know this because we can now use DNA evidence to check the facts of many cases in ways we simply couldn't decades ago. Some experts claim that it is "uncomfortably clear" that the courts often get things wrong, noting that 70 percent of overturned cases, based on DNA evidence, now contradict direct statements from eyewitnesses.
The witness says one person was at the scene. DNA evidence proves it was someone else. The witness, even if they thought they were being honest -- this isn't always malicious -- is simply wrong.
Why does it happen?
This happens for many reasons. Often, it's simply that things unfold quickly and witnesses do not get a warning that they're about to witness a crime. Maybe police chased down a suspected drunk driver who got out of the car and fled on foot. A witness watched it from across the street and then picked you out of a line-up when the police lost the real suspect in a crowd. You bear a mild resemblance to the other person, and that witness only saw someone running for a split second at a considerable distance.
Witnesses also get distracted. One common example is a bank robbery. A witness may look right at an armed robber, but the witness, fearing for his or her life, watches the gun. They barely see the person's face, even when it's right in front of them. They just have this primal urge to survive. Later, they mentally reconstruct the scene based on their peripheral vision, but that's not exactly a reliable way to find a suspect.
Other potential issues include low lighting, racial bias and faulty memories.
No matter why or how it happens, one testimony can change your life forever. Make sure you understand your legal defense options and your rights.