Thursday, February 18, 2010

eye witnessed

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.


Nat said...

There are many cases where people are convinced about what they've seen, and it turns out to be incorrect.

I think although juries like it, I think in some cases people are moving away from eye witness testimony.

JuliaR said...

Once you start reading the law, you realize how really bad eye witnesses are. And there are lots of psychology studies to back this up. I don't know why anyone would trust an eye witness for anything. It's good that people are sometimes videotaping incidents, because that you can rely on.

The Maven said...

Not exactly related, but something happened yesterday that got me thinking: I was leaving in my van to grab some groceries when I saw Intrepid walking up the road from the bus stop. I pulled up and talked to him with my window rolled down for a minute. Then, I saw someone driving up behind me on the narrow road and didn't want to block them, so I said 'I gotta go. Someone's coming. See you at home in a minute!' and drove off.

For some reason, I started wondering what the other people might have been thinking. They might have assumed I was talking to my son, or could have decided I looked like I was about to lure him into my vehicle. And I took off quickly when a car turned the corner. A sign of courtesy or politeness? It's all in how the tale weaves inside your head.

I watched an entire episode of American Justice on false eye witness reports. It was riveting. Our ability to find patterns can be useful, but also have grave consequences. We can't always believe what we THINK we see, as was the case for those pedestrians you encountered yesterday. I'm glad no one was hurt, and don't be too hard on yourself. Dogs have their own personalities and react in surprising ways sometimes. You did the best you could!c

Christine said...

It is very scary to think that a person can be charged for a crime based on the (flawed) recollection of another person. I can’t trust my poor memory to identify my dentist out of context (e.g. in the grocery store) let alone a stranger in a stressful and dangerous situation.

As for the dogs: while I’ve never had non-dog owners try to intervene, poor dog behavior seems to be more upsetting to humans than to the dogs. My older dog also isn’t very tolerant of young energetic pups who want to play with her and will in no uncertain terms tell them to back off. It’s unfortunate that the other woman fell, but it sounds like it was more a factor of the icy conditions than the interaction between the two dogs.

laurie said...

thanks! i feel better about the dog interaction than a couple of weeks ago (thanks to your feedback and that of the other dog owner). and yes, what you think you see and what you really do see can be very different things.

and christine, i just saw a neighbour (i think) out of context and didn't say 'hello' because i couldn't place her at first.

Anonymous said...

What has been missing in this article is the fact that Mr. Hick's and Joe Webber went to High School together,so Mr.Hick's knew him.He had been at his home begging for money a short time before the home invasion for whatever reason.So much is missing in the Globe and Mail article and Mr.Webber has been made out to be the sufferer.He is after compensation from our government for time spent incarcerated so he is looking for all the sympathy he can get and is not being honest about all the details.I was in the courtroom listening to the details.He had no alibi and no defense.during one witness statement his face went red with guilt written all over it.He was not unknown to police.So you see he was not just somebody Mr.Hick's chose to point the finger at.He knew it was him the day of the home invasion.Without a doubt he knew him mask or no mask.Joe Webber was also incarcerated with the now accused.You really have to wonder what went on behind bars.Keep an open mind about this for their is more to this story than the general public knows.It will interesting to see if Mr.Webber is compensated by our government and what happens to the money when and if he is.Keep an open mind about eyewitness.There is a huge difference between seeing and knowing someone.