Eyewitnesses can’t be trusted?

Here is an innocent man who spent 30 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. Seattle Times article. Because of cases like this, this Seattle criminal defense investigator is against the death penalty. Because of cases like this, this investigator is strongly motivated in my criminal defense and personal injury cases to get the best information from witnesses that I can and to expose unreliable witnesses when I find them.

Eyewitness identification is unreliable. We’ve known that for a very long time. An eyewitness can be honest, but wrong. An eyewitness can be confused by a variety of factors. An eyewitness can lie for a variety of reasons. An eyewitness can be manipulated by careless or unscrupulous law enforcement officers. In the absence of substantial collaborating evidence, why do we continue to accept eyewitness testimony as sufficient to convict anybody of anything?

Why would you want to help defend the guilty?

“Why would you want to help defend the guilty?”

“Do you want to help set a criminal free?”

I get asked that question all the time when I tell people I’m a criminal defense investigator. “What if the person you are helping to defend is really guilty? What if the defense attorney you work for on the case gets him acquitted and he walks free? How can you justify your part in his defense?”

I’ve been asked these and similar questions by some family and friends and by a few people whom I’ve just met. It usually happens just after they find out what I do for a living. These questions usually come from good and well-meaning people.

But the question shows that the person asking is woefully ignorant of our system of justice and its underlying principles. In my experience, it’s unusual to find a person who does understand, who isn’t in the business or wasn’t involved in a criminal or civil lawsuit.

I’m a private investigator, not a lawyer.

My job is to find and document information, gathered from a variety of sources, which my attorney/clients need to properly defend accused persons from criminal charges. I am not judge, jury or prosecutor. It is not my role to judge the accused, even if the accused has a criminal record.

I’ve developed an answer that seems to work for me and for my questioners.

Consider an answer in two parts

I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer to this sort of question has two elements: 1) an examination of the language we use and 2) a review of the basic legal principles involved. I’ll give the first part of my answer in this blog and the second part in the next blog, in about a week.

Is language part of the problem?

Why is it called criminal defense rather than defense of the accused? If a person accused in our court system is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty, why do we use a term that labels the person “criminal” before the trial is conducted and concluded?

I’m a criminal defense investigator. I work for criminal defense lawyers. We work to defend accused persons, only some of whom are truly guilty, truly criminals. The trial is where the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined.

Why is it guilty versus not-guilty instead of proven versus not-proven? In criminal cases the jury must find the accused guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt” in order to convict. Doesn’t the use of “guilty” imply certainty? This term is subjective and less than absolutely certain.

A jury in a criminal case examines and evaluates the evidence and the arguments of opposing attorneys and then deliberates to come to a conclusion about guilt or innocence based on a judge’s instructions about the applicable law.

If a jury doesn’t deadlock, they come back to the courtroom after concluding their deliberations with a verdict of guilty (beyond a reasonable doubt) or not guilty (meaning that they have at least a reasonable doubt). Where is the certainty in this usage? Shouldn’t it be “proven” beyond a reasonable doubt or “not proven” beyond a reasonable doubt?

Words are powerful. They sometimes convey meaning beyond, or at odds with, the intent of the users and consequently program those who hear the words to misunderstand and prejudge.

Maybe people would have a better understanding if we were more precise in the language we use to discuss our criminal justice system and the people charged in that system with crimes.

Maybe my first jury experience would have been different had the language used been different and more precise.