Troy Davis – Wrong place at the wrong time?
After being on death row for twenty years, Troy Davis was finally executed with lethal injection on September 21st, 2011, for murder of an off-duty police officer, Mark McPhail. This, despite serious doubts about his involvement in the crime.
The execution of Troy Davis has spawned into a worldwide debate. While some are calling out the breakdown in the US Justice system, others are calling for abolishment of the death penalty.
But, looking at how this case unfolded challenges integrity of the investigation and illustrates shortcomings of the human brain – how it clouds judgement and decision making.
1. Unreliability of memory The primary reason Troy was convicted in the first place was because of witness testimony. But, if six of nine witnesses recant their testimony, is there any case left?
What is it with this fallible memory? As the authors of The Invisible Gorilla explain,
Memory depends both on what actually happened and how we made sense of what happened.
Witnesses who claimed to have seen Troy Davis kill the cop seem to have done so in very uncertain circumstances.
Dorothy, a witness, claimed that Troy was indeed the one who killed Mark McPhail, but she saw all the action from over 200 meters away in poor lighting. Ditto for other witnesses who saw this from a distance or from behind heavily tinted windows of a car.
For these witnesses, over time, their memory was consistent with what plausibly would have happened, instead of what really did happen.
2. Emotionally significant events distort memory For the witnesses that testified, their brains were encoding information during a very emotionally charged event.
As the Scientific American puts it –
From evolutionary point of view, when something significant happens, our amygdala is activated, and our brains tag the event so that we remember the apparent threat or otherwise emotionally charged episode.
But then, since we’re perceptually coding this emotionally significant event, our coding for other things, especially the details, becomes worse. To help us remember this event for the future, our brain does something interesting – it makes up a story, a script that can be replayed in the head, so that we can remember this emotional event.
For the witnesses, the shootout at the parking lot was emotionally significant. To remember this event, what they did was fill in the gaps and make a coherent story implicating Troy Davis in their testimonies.
3. Succumbing to inattentional blindness. Once the police regarded Troy as a suspect, they disregarded every other clue which led them away from Troy, or importantly towards Sylvester “Redd” Coles,
People see what they expect to see, and often remember what they expect to remember.
Photos of Troy Davis were already circulated, so people who were brought in for eyewitness identification were already primed to identify Troy Davis as a suspect. On the other hand, Coles, who was also present at the scene of crime, was brought in as a witness and not a suspect. This seemed to suggest that he couldn’t be the bad guy.
Moreover, the situation was extremely emotionally charged for the police too. Their judgement was clouded by emotions because the victim was one of their own. Any conviction for a serious crime that involved a police officer was undoubtedly better than none. This belief made them get testimonies from witnesses with coercion, not cooperation.
For a case that was overwhelmingly shrouded in doubt, from a human rights perspective, many people feel capital punishment is unacceptable. But unfortunately, The criminal justice system is not designed to do the right thing, it is designed to do the correct thing.
We may never know what actually happened. But then, our world is built on not just facts, but also on perceptions and emotions; therein lies the fallibility.
(Image source: thewellversed)