On the Death Penalty and Eyewitness Testimony

Last night, at 11:08PM EDT, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia, despite local and international outcry. Today is one of those days where I really don’t like being a part of humanity. So, let me get this off my chest, even though it has nothing to do with astronomy.

Mixed messages? Uh, yeah. By Dan4th on Flickr. And from my very own state of Virginia.


I have always been against the death penalty, at least as best as I can remember. (Human memory is fallible, and that will become important shortly.) When I was religious, I believed that only God had the power to judge, to create and take human life. Who are we mere mortals to judge? I don’t think that the overall sentiment has changed now that I no longer hold a belief in an omnipotent and just deity. Who are we, still, to determine who should live and who should die? By what standards? After all, as a humanist, I am “committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity,” as discussed in the Humanist Manifesto. The civilized world is trending away from capital punishment, and I believe that we should follow suit, even if we have to do it state by state.

In addition to moral and ethical reasons, the Troy Davis case has shown us that significant doubt can be generated for a death-row inmate. The United States (or more precisely, its constituent States) may be guilty of killing innocent inmates, and that should bother every single citizen. To date, 139 death row inmates have been exonerated. I do not accept such a failure rate. Amnesty International, the organization that fights against human rights violations all over the world, makes a pretty good case against the death penalty if you desire to explore further.

To make sure I’m clear about this, my position is against capital punishment, regardless of guilt or innocence, and I’m extremely disgusted at how easily an innocent person may be sentenced to die. I cannot know for sure if Troy Davis was innocent or guilty, but I reject his execution either way. And, I am repulsed that his execution went forward in light of so much doubt.

However, there is an aspect of the Troy Davis case that disturbs me even more, that is, the case of his original conviction. Though there was some ballistic evidence that he had once been in possession of the gun that was fired, the murder conviction was mostly based on eyewitness testimony. Most people have focused on the fact that 7 of those 9 eye-witnesses have recanted their testimony, but my problem is with the conviction in the first place. Modern science has shown us time and time again that eyewitness reports are anything but “beyond a reasonable doubt.” There are so so many examples from research and from everyday life that tell us this. And that doesn’t even take into account the possibility of testimonies gone wrong.

As the Skeptical Teacher reported just a couple of weeks ago, at least one state is starting to get it. Are we all really going to be shown up by New Jersey? Our justice system is in big trouble if we rely too heavily on eyewitness testimony. Remember that when you are up for jury duty. Remember that if you are in law school. Remember that, as you write to you local politicians and petition your judges. Remember that when discussing crime and punishment with anyone who still thinks that eyewitness testimony is enough to send a person to jail, or a man, proclaiming innocence, to his death.

7 comments for “On the Death Penalty and Eyewitness Testimony

  1. Brian Gregory
    September 22, 2011 at 14:37

    “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the wise cannot see all ends.” ~ Gandalf the Grey

  2. Tom
    September 22, 2011 at 15:45

    I get the point that eyewitness testimony may be blurry at some times, but to have a goal of not relying on it at all seems way too far.

    If that were the law, I could go to a baseball game, pick up the bat that the hitter dropped, and use it to beat him to death. As long as I left no “physical evidence” on the bat, I’m good to go.

    • Nicole
      September 22, 2011 at 17:29

      By this, I never meant that we should “not rely on it at all.” However, we need to be realistic about its use in criminal cases.

      If, in your extreme example, you were not apprehended after the deed and walked out of the stadium, and if there was no video evidence of you doing it, and if your buddies who were there don’t come out and say, “Dude, he walked down there and did it,” and unless you had some really distinguishing feature, it’s not clear that a stadium full of people would all reliably pick you out of a line-up.

  3. Ani A.
    September 22, 2011 at 16:47

    Well said Nicole. YOU clearly get it. :)

    NJ is on the right track. It’s also important what they omitted from their list of things to consider: confidence. That doesn’t correlate with accuracy and I’m happy to see that’s not listed.

    Inclusion of stress could be problematic though because the research is really mixed on whether that hurts or helps.

  4. Leslie David
    September 22, 2011 at 20:38

    Unfortunately with the death penalty is once you execute someone, you can’t bring them back if evidence later proves they’re not guilty.

  5. September 22, 2011 at 21:12

    Well said Nicole. If truth is repeated enough times it others will catch on. Keep speaking.

  6. Tom H
    October 4, 2011 at 02:03

    On the subject of the death penalty, I take a bit of pride in being a Michiganian. I totally agree that state-sanctioned murder is unethical.

    On the use of eye-witnesses, particularly in capital punishment cases, I remember reading that prosecutors deliberately choose jurors who are inclined to believe eye-witness testimony, despite all evidence that it is more unreliable than reliable, and that this is justified based on what a reasonable person knows and would do.

    @Tom: turn your fictional situation around a little. Suppose that you left your seat (maybe went to have a smoke), and while you were gone someone who was dressed like you went on the field and killed someone. Since you were both wearing a cap, there’s no good video of the face of the assailant. Later, on your way out of the stadium, you’re arrested for looking like the assailant. Now your photo gets in the papers and everyone “knows” you did it. Your friends all say you couldn’t have done it, but admit that you disappeared just before the attack and returned a while after. In the absence of any contrary physical evidence, you now stand a fair chance of being convicted on the basis of flawed-but-confident eye-witness testimony.

    This sort of scenario happens all the time.

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