Yesterday, the Globe and Mail ran this article about Joe Webber, a man from Aylmer, Ontario, who was falsely accused of forcible confinement and robbery. He was convicted and served nineteen months in jail, based solely on eye witness testimony Although, the perpetrators of the crime were masked, one of the victims of the home invasion identified Webber, claiming to recognize his "bright blue eyes."
Webber's eyes are actually gray.
Webber was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in jail but was later cleared when two other men confessed to the crime.
Duane Hicks, who identified Webber, remains adamant that it was Webber and his blue (really gray) eyes that he saw behind the mask.
It's a fascinating and tragic story but it's not the first time, in recent weeks, that I've had cause to think about the unreliability of eye witnesses.
A couple of weeks ago, I was walking the dogs home from the park when I saw a woman and her Bernese Mountain Dog coming towards me. I knew them both from the park and called out a greeting as she grew closer.
J-Dog, my older, bigger dog (55 lbs, the Bernese was much bigger than he was) has been getting a little crochety in his old age. He's taken a dislike to younger male dogs, especially when he's on leash. There's never been any serious fighting but, as a precautionary measure, I've been crossing the street or making J-Dog sit when other dogs are approaching on leash. This time, though, since the dogs had met many times, I didn't think to do it.
When the Bernese got close, Jasper lunged at him and growled. The other dog reacted the same way, his owner went to pull him back and slipped on some ice. She fell into a snow bank and the force of her fall brought her giant dog down on top of her. His paw hit her in the face and cut her lip.
We were both uspet (the humans were. The dogs, having recovered from their tussle, were just standing calmly beside us). I felt terrible not to have foreseen the interaction. We were both apologizing to each other, when two women who had been walking behind us felt the need to jump in, one yelling at me and the other fussing the other dog owner.
They kept asking her over and over again if she was OK. She kept saying "yes!" We both tried explaining that it was fine, that we knew each other and so did the dogs ("That doesn't matter!" one woman exclaimed) but they were zealous in their condemnation of me (and my dog) and vociferous in expressing their anger and outrage.
I realized later, based on a few things they said, that both women believed that they had seen Jasper attack the other dog owner and the Bernese leaping in to protect her.
And I'm sure they would have made sworn statements to that effect.
The dogs and I ran into the Bernese and his human (off-leash) in the dog park and the dogs played together happily. I apologized again for not anticipating J-Dog's bad behaviouor and she once again stated that she feels both dogs (and both owners) were at fault. She also commented on how the intervention of those "witnesses" had just made things so much worse.
I've learned my lesson. I'm now completely consistent in making J-Dog sit when another dog approaches, even when I know it's a dog he likes. And it goes without saying that the only comparison to what happened to J-Dog and Joe Webber was the absolute conviction on the part of witnesses that they saw something that did not happen.