Years ago when I was in high school, I took a class in sociology and psychology. One morning I went into the classroom and took a seat, preparing to listen to a lecture and take notes. The teacher, who was slight in stature and build, took her place at the front of the room.
Suddenly a classmate, a young man, slammed into the room, yelling and shouting as he rushed down the aisle toward the teacher. I froze, watching open-mouthed, as he menaced the teacher. She cringed, backing away. Two other classmates jumped from their seats and grabbed the young man, hustling him out of the classroom.
My classmates and I sat in shocked silence. The teacher, who had just been attacked verbally and very nearly physically, seemed calm as she resumed her place at the front of the class.
“All right,” she said. “I want you to write down what you saw.”
Needless to say, all of us in that classroom wrote divergent accounts of what had transpired.
It was a valuable lesson, one I’ve never forgotten. A group of people may see the same incident and see entirely different things. Two people may have a conversation, and hear what is said in very different ways. Two people may remember something in the past and have completely different takes on the situation.
That happens sometimes when my brother and I have the Mom-Always-Liked-You-Best conversation. My mother takes the fifth on that one.
This is why eyewitness testimony is considered notoriously unreliable. That was brought home to me, again, several years ago when I spent five weeks on a jury in a murder trial.
The defendant had shot and killed the victim. There were a number of eyewitnesses to the incident. They all had different stories to tell, depending on where they were when the shooting occurred.
The lawyers involved sought to cast suspicion on the accuracy of testimony of this witness or that. In some cases, it had to do with the substances those witnesses had been ingesting before the shooting took place. In other cases, the lawyers tried to show that testimony was filtered through a witness’s own agendas concerning the crime, or relationships to the defendant and the deceased.
Those of us on the jury were sworn to decide the case on the evidence presented. We may have had our own filters, though I can only speak for myself. I only know that my take on the case changed as the trial progressed.
As a mystery writer, this is a valuable tool. I’m writing a scene in my work in progress, a Jeri Howard book, where Jeri is talking to two people, husband and wife, about something that’s going on in Petaluma, the town where the couple lives.
Of course, they see it quite differently. Who is correct? That’s for Jeri to find out.