There’s a lot of discussion these days about innocence, and I confess I too have very strong opinions on the subject. In 2002 I was sexually assaulted on my way home from the post office. Last year the police tracked back DNA to a person who is serving time for another crime, and they contacted me so I could testify in front of a grand jury, and to see if I could ID the perpetrator in a photo lineup.
I traveled to New York City in the dead of winter, my least favorite time to be back East. I was suspicious I’d be a bad eye witness, though I was interested in the process. Among other reasons, I got to work ever so slightly on the book The Innocents by Taryn Simon, so I knew that sometimes people are convicted of crimes they haven’t committed. Also, it had been eight years since the crime had occurred and that’s a long time (though eye witnesses can make mistakes even within an hour, a day or a week).
Once in a room with photographs of eight men in front of me, my eyes went straight for one of the guys. Since this is a story about eyewitnesses, I can confess I can’t remember exactly where the guy was on the sheet of paper or anything about his features. What I do remember is that he had some skin condition—pimples or moles—little black specks on his face and I thought that seemed familiar. None of the other photos had that, and almost all the photos were darker, with dark backgrounds and less visible facial features. I doubt that the person who put the lineup together did that on purpose but it would be easy to set it up that way subconsciously.
The worst part, though, of the whole identification thing was how the detective revealed to me that the photo I’d picked out was exactly the photo he’d been hoping I’d choose. It wasn’t anything he said, but I knew I’d picked, well, right. Except that felt really wrong. And once the detective got excited it was over for me, because I could never again be sure that my mind was unclouded. What followed was fifteen minutes of insisting I wouldn’t sign anything. The detective argued with me, he left and he came back, he paced and he pleaded and I just couldn’t sign that paper, no matter how scary it was to say so, no matter how many times the detective told me, “You know, this is just a formality—we have DNA evidence!”
Back in 2002, after this all happened, I was carried through some pretty rough spots by my curiosity about the justice system. I had a hero complex for the lady detective assigned to the case, and I was happy to visit the sketch artist and sort through hundreds of beautiful old mug shots that could serve as models for this nose or these eyes. I suppose it’s okay to admit, now, that I walked out with a few of my favorites in front of the detective, no less. I think that last year, making my way to New York to revisit this crime, I was still curious about how this all works, and the more I found out, the more problematic it seemed.
Personally I’ve never understood the victims with bloodlust. I have only recently been angry at my attacker, and my anger is actually pretty mild, considering. I think this guy should be locked up for sure, because otherwise he’d just commit crime after crime. If another gracious lady had to rebuild herself after such an event as I did, it would be a shame and a horror. But I would hate it more to think that the wrong man was imprisoned as his time alive on this beautiful earth slipped away. I would be utterly haunted if the man was put to death.