June 18, 2014

Court Rejects Witness Recantation, Upholds Conviction

Were you lying then, or are you lying now? This old saw begs the question of whether the witness was ever telling the truth in the first place. Sometimes, the combination of internal and external pressure, coupled with the inherent frailities of the human mind and the passage of time, can cause even the surest of witnesses to begin to wonder if she can distinguish between truth and fiction, reliable memory or mirage.

The issue of witness reliability arose in a recent decision by Bronx Supreme Court Justice Richard Lee Price, who denied an attempt to overturn a 20 year-old conviction based on a key witness's recantation.

In 1993, Christine Holloway, a retired corrections officer, testified at the Bronx murder trial of Shane Watson. Holloway provided crucial identification testimony, bolstered by two other witnesses. Watson was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 20 years to life.

He is now represented by Robert Boyle, who is being assisted by The Exoneration Initiative in Manhattan. An investigator working for Boyle tracked Holloway down in Georgia, where she had since relocated. After meeting with the investigator and then Boyle, Holloway recanted, stating that she couldn't originally identify Watson, indicating that her testimony was fabricated at the original trial.

Price found Holloway's testimony problematic, concluding that her original testimony was far more likely to have been truthful than what she offered at a recent hearing. Price was bothered by inconsistencies, such as her having claimed at one point to having long been "haunted" and "disturbed" by her false testimony, only to later state that she first began "to doubt things" after Boyle's investigator met with her. She also said the "scary" investigator made her feel as though she had to recant, a statement suggesting that Holloway was either pressured into giving less than reliable testimony, or that she was simply a malleable witness, prone to pressure. If she had lied at the trial, then she had participated in a horrible crime against Shane Watson and justice system, and then further amplified this bad deed by remaining silent for two decades. If she had testifed truthfully, then she was not perjuring herself in order to perpetrate a fraud on the court. Either way, she was lying. Ultimately, Judge Price concluded that Holloway's original testimony was more likely accurate than her recantation and denied the motion to set aside the verdict.

I know far too little about the arrest and trial of Shane Watson to offer an opinion as to the reliability of his conviction. What is clear, however, is that (a) our physical imperfections necessarily result in flawed testimony, which (b) can result in misidentifications, and (c) it is very difficult for witnesses to admit to being wrong in the first place.

That human beings can make profound mistakes when identifying people is beyond debate (a point I'll discuss in another post). In sum, our ability to accurate remember details, particularly in pressurized situations, is flawed, which leads to all sorts of errorss which, however honest, can cause serious and permanent damage in the context of criminal prosecutions. Some people don't want to admit to their self-doubts, since to admit to error might require taking responsibility for sending the wrong person to jail. On the other hand, some people, worried about this precise consequence, may talk themselves into doubting their own otherwise accurate memory. Over time, and under pressure from investigators and lawyers, the truth can become increasingly uncertain, or flexible, if you will.

And so the question remains, were you lying then, are you lying now, were you ever telling the truth, and how can we ever really tell for sure?

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