Troy Davis was convicted of murder 20 years ago. After four appeals, Davis awaits his fate. He waits along with thousands around the world who support him receiving clemency. Davis’ life now lies in the hands of the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole. The last time the board heard from Davis was in 2008. The board agreed to move forward with the execution of Davis. Supporters of Davis are hopeful the ruling will be different this time. With 3 new board members having never heard the case prior and a petition of over 650,000 people signed from citizens around the world, it appears many feel he is an innocent man wrongly convicted. These sentiments of clemency are shared by high profile persons like former President Jimmy Carter (from Georgia) and former Georgia Republican congressman Bobb Barr.
Supporters of Davis have many motives, yet one cause: to save Davis from lethal injection. There are those who see this as the perfect battle-cry to protest capital punishment. Others feel Davis a wrongly convicted man condemned to die for a crime he never committed. This conviction of Davis’ was largely based on eyewitness testimony. 7 of the 9 eyewitnesses in the case have recanted their statements. Several of them state that they were coerced by police to identify Davis as the murderer. So far, this has not been enough to allow Davis to receive a new trial or overturn his current sentence.
Eyewitness testimony is known to be the most unreliable of all evidence. This is largely due to how the human brain functions with regard to memory. Dr Gary Wells states “Like trace evidence, eyewitness evidence can be contaminated, lost, destroyed or otherwise made to produce results that can lead to an incorrect reconstruction of the crime.” Many eyewitnesses are instructed by police officers as to how to identify a suspect. This, on average, actually leads to errors and increased the probability of the incorrect suspected being identified. The instruction seems to loosen the criterion of eyewitnesses and increases their propensity to identify someone.” Eventually, the witnesses unknowinlgy comlly to the instruction and alter their perception. “Eyewitnesses start to imagine possible changes and think, ‘This must be him,’” says Wells.
Sir Frederick Bartlett was famous for his studies in cognitive and learning psychology centered around memory and being an eyewitness. Bartlett developed theories that recognized the influence of personal perception, culture, attitudes and attributes on memory. Bartlett theorized that long-term memories are not fixed. In fact, it is fluid. It can be altered to fit our schema (beliefs). We have the ability to reconstruct memories. In addition, we tend to notice the details that fit our belief systems more than we do those things that do not fit into our schema. Jean Piaget theorized that when interpreting what we see, we either assimilate it into our schema (because it fits into the familiarity of what we know) or we accommodate the interpretation by creating a new schema allowing our brain to organize our views of the world with our sense of reality.
Atkinson and Shiffrin introduced an model in 1968 that displays how the brain filters information based on schema, attributes and accommodation to display how the brain filters out information that does not fit or makes us uncomfortable. These researchers, among others, all agree with this notion: memory is malleable and faulty. Take this eyewitness test designed by Dr Wells to see if your memory is reliable.
Since eyewitness testimony was so heavily relied upon in the prosecution’s case against Davis, it can be argued that the eyewitnesses believed they saw Davis commit the crime but the memory could be inaccurate if it can be shown that there was police coercion, suggestion or any other direct way of “tampering” with their memories. Their memory could also have been even less accurate since it was not gathered immediately after viewing the traumatic event. It also can be argued that the witnesses may have misidentified Davis as the shooter because their minds did not process the events factually. In contrast, stating that 7 of the 9 eyewitnesses have recanted their statements could suggest that 7 of the 9 witnesses have created false memories based on the evolving of their beliefs. In other words, over time, the witnesses started to feel compelled and influenced by others unknowingly. They could have created new memories of not seeing Davis commit the crime. This theory could be additionally supported by the fact that 7 of 9 witnesses changed their statements. It isn’t likely that anyone who witnesses a violent crime would change their statement as trauma tends to facilitate more accurate recall of events, even with outside influence.
We all live in a world where we understand that our perception is our reality. However, we also live in a world where our perspective is is influenced, particularly over time. Short-term memory (also called working memory), though flawed, is still often more reliable than long-term memory. This is because it reduces the likelihood of a false memory being constructed. With 20 years having passed, without trace, forensic evidence, we may never know what was seen on the day this crime was committed. Nor will we ever know if Davis is truly guilty or innocent.