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Tuesday, 20 March 2018

How do you prove your innocence?

Recently, a Dutch newspaper reported on a thesis by criminal psychologist Ricardo Nieuwkamp of Maastricht University. One of his findings was that only 2% of innocent suspects are able to produce an alibi that is beyond any reasonable doubt. It doesn't help that police "testilying" (= testify+lying)  has become a serious (American?) issue (eg, NYT, Wiki).

I didn't think much about this article until I arrived at episodes 1 to 11 of season 6 of The Good Wife (#8.3 in IMDbWiki) on Netflix. One of the main characters ends up in a nightmare, following fictitious drug charges. When he accepts a plea bargain and gets reduced sentencing, his "guilty" plea is used against him when evidence turns up in his favour. 

These episodes made me wonder how I would prove my own innocence. My first thought was to use cell phone data or banking transactions in order to demonstrate my whereabouts. However, the police might then argue that someone else used my mobile phone and/or banking debet/credit card. Without witnesses, how do you prove your innocence??

The first issue is the state of our memories. Who would recall what he did on a certain day, without first looking in your agenda on your mobile phone? Most days feel entirely the same without the occurrence of a main event (eg, birthday). Main events around an alleged crime date may help to remember your whereabouts and construct your alibi. 

The second issue is our eagerness to testify. Our initial impulse is talking to the police as we usually like telling our (perceived) truth. However, we didn't yet verify our memories with facts (eg, agenda, banking records, cell phone data). These omissions may create false testimonies. A false testimony could turn us from a witness into a suspect

The third issue is our status: are we a (potential) witness or a (potential) suspect? This may not be clear when the police knocks on our door because we do not yet know the (real) reason of their visit. Given our innocence, we naturally expect to be a police witness. Moreover, witnesses talk to the police, and suspects remain silent. This psychology may easily work against us. 

The fourth issue is our assumption of mutual interest. We naturally assume that the police will be eager to corroborate our innocence. We ignore that the police is limited in time and in resources and is eager to decrease their workload. These constraints may cause a tunnel vision in which the police only follows their own point of view. 

"Innocent people are extremely vulnerable. Criminals wear gloves, make sure that they are not seen, do not leave DNA, and so forth. It's extremely difficult for innocent people, who happen to be in the neighbourhood, to prove that they did not commit the murder." Translated quote from Ton Derksen, philosopher of science and author of several books on judicial errors

Innocent (2018) - Official trailer starring Lee Ingleby - #8.2 in IMDb, video


Note: all bold and italic markings and translation by LO unless stated otherwise