For the last few days, Brian Williams has been criticized for his reporting of a 2003 Iraq war story in which he reported his helicopter was shot by an RPG. On Wednesday, Williams admitted he had misspoke and misremembered how the incident unfolded. The truth, as was confirmed by several people on Williams’ helicopter, was that his chopper was not hit. Instead, it was a helicopter in front of Williams’ chopper that actually got shot at. NBC announced an internal probe, questions arose about Williams’ reporting of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and ultimately Williams decided to take a few days off from his nightly newscast. How could this happen? How could someone’s memory be replaced by something that did not actually happen? Finally, how does this relate to wrongful convictions, you ask? Simple: eyewitness identifications.
Eyewitness misidentifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. We as humans believe our memory works like a video camera. We think we can rewind and play back the events that unfolded right before our eyes. The truth is, our brains cannot store the amount of data we witness. We remember bits and pieces from an event and fill in the gaps with what we think are the right details. Often, our new, complete memory is drastically different from what actually occurred. We believe we can recreate the events when in actuality our memory is pretty poor. Add in a weapon and a high stress environment and the likelihood of a good memory plummets. (For an awesome, more in depth look at this concept, check out this New Yorker article from earlier this week.)
Certainly, this happens to everyone. You are told a story by a friend or significant other. Several months later, you are telling the story as if it happened to you. Your friend happens to hear you and calls you out. You realize your memory is flawed. So, why do we put so much weight on eyewitness IDs in court?
Until the discovery of DNA, the most compelling evidence in a case was the eyewitness who pointed at the defendant and said “THAT’S HIM!” While still compelling today, we now know and recognize the possibility the witness is wrong. Judges read jury instructions letting witnesses know eyewitness IDs are fallible. But, it is very hard to completely discount a witness that swears up and down they have the right person. Interestingly, the confidence level of a witness has nothing to do with their accuracy. One study actually found that the more confident a witness was about their identification, the more likely they were wrong. In other words, a witness that takes the stand and swears they are 100% sure the defendant committed the crime at hand would be less accurate than the witness claiming to only be 90% sure.
When talking about Williams’ failed memory, we should do what our friend and exoneree Herman Atkins preaches: “each one, teach one, teach one, each one.” Go out and explain to your friends how memory works. Read more about eyewitness ID issues here and watch this video put together by our very own High Tech High interns. Then, the next time you are on a jury, keep in mind the witness may have had a Brian Williams moment. If you don’t, the result could be a life sentence for an innocent man.