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Monday, March 15, 2021

In The Courtroom: Science Versus Memory

     For lawyers in a courtroom, on-the-scene descriptions and eyewitness observations are valuable assets. Lawyers know from experience that the "plausible" testimony of a "credible" witness can make or break a case. They know that juries are easily swayed by human testimony, and that if what a witness says sounds correct, juries usually believe it is correct.

     Medical examiners, on the other hand, knowing the ambiguity of appearances and the fickleness of the senses, regard eyewitness reports with a good deal less enthusiasm. In their experience, eyewitness descriptions are often the least reliable of all forensic aids, while scientific testing and objective analysis are the two most important crime solving tools.

     One thinks of the famous Japanese film Rashomon. The story revolves around an episode in which--or so it seems--a merchant and his wife are attacked by a bandit. The wife is raped and the merchant killed. Three people are involved in the drama, plus a woodcutter who witnesses the event. We see the episode from the point of view of each protagonist, and each story is entirely different from the others. Due to their own fears, lies, blindness, subjectivity--who knows?--the three people describing the crime might as well be reporting three separate murders.

Frederick Zugibe, M.D. and David L. Carroll, Dissecting Death, 2006

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