March 23, 2011

The Cost of Being Wrong

I'm in Richmond this week for a pair of oral arguments before the Fourth Circuit.  As it happens, one of the big news stories involved an innocent man walking out of prison:
It was an eventful 46th birthday Monday for Thomas E. Haynesworth, released on parole after 27 years in custody for crimes authorities now believe he did not commit.

Relaxing at his mother's home Monday afternoon in the Fulton area of Richmond, he enjoyed some shrimp fried rice, was nipped by the family dog, used a cellphone for the first time and got acquainted with some of his 17 nieces and nephews.

'It feels great, it feels great,' he said.
Haynesworth was convicted of rape, based on the eyewitness testimony of the victim.  As today's Washington Post explains:
When she identified Haynesworth, there was no doubt in her mind.

Then in 2005, the exonerations of five men prompted Virginia to launch a massive reexamination of DNA evidence in old criminal cases using the latest technology. Her attack was among them.

'If there wasn’t DNA, I would still be saying he was the one who did it,' the woman said.
The DNA testing not only exonerated Haynesworth, but identified the actual attacker.

As the Washington Post piece points out, the wrongfully convicted aren't the only ones who suffer in situations like this.  Eyewitnesses, victims in particular, have their own particular kind of guilt:
'For so long, his face and his name were where I directed my anger,' the Henrico County woman said in a recent interview. 'That’s gone now. He’s not the name. He’s not the face.'

'Now when I hear his name, I feel guilt. Obsessive guilt.'
The more we learn about how memory works, and doesn't work, the more skeptical we should be of eyewitness testimony.  It's important to consider that victims like the one in this case or other eyewitnesses who ID the wrong guy aren't (for the most part) acting out of malice.  They think they're doing the right thing and accurate pointing out the bad guy.  They're not liars.  They were just wrong.

I wrote about another case like this, and the aftereffects, back on the old blog in 2009.

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