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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 15-Oct-10


Friday 15-October-10

Eye-witnesses and justice

If you were walking down the road and there was an accident, how good a witness do you think you would be? Sadly the human memory is quite fallible and is a long way from a reliable video recorder. And what if your testimony was important for helping others? Sometimes witnesses are important and what they can and cannot remember is critical.

I was once on a jury for a serious case where a gang of youths had beaten up a policeman outsider his home. A neighbour had come out to help and had suffered the same fate. Both had ended up in hospital though fortunately came out ok. A number neighbours had seen the affray from their houses and were called as witnesses to the trial which took a year to come to court.

In the courtroom there was clear imbalance in the legal teams: one young woman spoke for the crown prosecution service whilst each of the the seven defendants had a barrister. Thus witnesses were questioned once by the prosecutor then seven times by the defence.

The defence lawyers all had a simple strategy, to keep probing for inconsistencies and to ask 'And what exactly was my client doing?' Of course after a year memories had faded. Worse, several had changes, particularly in the finer detail.

Then the killer strategy was for the defence to keep bringing up points of law, for which the jury would be sent out. After several days, the judge stopped the trial and directed us to find the defendants not guilty on a technicality. It was frustrating as none of the defendants denied being there.

There's something here about justice and the letter of the law. Justice certainly was not served, though the law may have been strictly observed. It also highlighted a persistent problem in the fallibility of human memory. One day, perhaps, we'll find a way to electronically enhance it. Until then, the guilty will get away scot free.

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