The Rashomon effect: How criminals get away with crime

November 23, 2020 4:30 AM

Eyewitness testimony can be one of the most unreliable forms of evidence

The Rashomon effect is a term related to the dishonourable unreliability of eyewitnesses.The Rashomon effect is a term related to the dishonourable unreliability of eyewitnesses.

By Vidya Hattangadi

A famous quote by author Mark Twain reads the following: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t.” This is generally said to explain situations when truth seems improbable, based on facts and circumstances.

In a crime scene quite a few researchers have found that eyewitness-identification testimony can be very unreliable; therefore, it is expected that law enforcement agencies and courts should follow the recommendations of social scientists when using and assessing eyewitness techniques, such as line-ups, in criminal cases. The Rashomon effect is a term related to the dishonourable unreliability of eyewitnesses. It describes a situation in which an event is given contradictory interpretations or descriptions by the individuals involved.

In his epochal film Rashomon, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa uses a crime thriller narrative in 1950 to introduce us to the concept of ‘multiple realities’ and the pointlessness of reconciling them—even in an open-and-shut case. In the film, set in a forest, a woman is either seduced or raped by a bandit and her samurai husband is murdered. The narratives offered by four of the protagonists—the bandit, the wife, the dead samurai (whose spirit is invoked through a ‘medium’), and a woodcutter who claims to have been an eyewitness to the crimes—are all equally probable as standalone strands, even if they are all self-serving. When we hear each of their testimonies, we get convinced of the certainty of each of them. Yet, seen together, the various accounts are extremely mutually incompatible.

Social scientists have demonstrated through many studies since the 1960s that there are significant reasons to be concerned about the accuracy of the eyewitness-identification testimony used in criminal trials. Although witnesses can often be very confident that their memory is accurate when identifying a suspect, the pliable nature of human memory and visual perception makes eyewitness testimony one of the most unreliable forms of evidence.

I hereby present an account of beautifully made Hindi art movie in 1986, ‘Ek Ruka Hua Faisla’. The story begins in a courtroom where a teenage boy from a city slum is on a trial for stabbing his father to death. Final closing arguments have been presented, and the judge then instructs the jury to decide whether the boy is guilty of murder, which carries a mandatory death sentence. Once inside the jury discussion room, it is immediately apparent that all jurors, with the sole exception of juror number 8 (KK Raina), have already decided that the boy is guilty, and that they plan to return their verdict quickly, without taking time for discussion. Juror number 8’s vote annoys the other jurors. He calls into question the accuracy and reliability of the only two eyewitnesses to the murder, the rarity of the murder weapon (a common pocketknife, of which he has an identical copy), and the overall questionable circumstances (including the fact that an elevated train was passing by at the time of the murder). He further argues that he cannot, in good conscience, vote ‘guilty’ when he feels there is reasonable doubt of the boy’s guilt and slowly convinces each juror of the same by his logical findings around each piece of evidence.

Often, eyewitness testimony has a fatal flaw; it is not always accurate. If a witness provides testimony that is untrue or mistaken, it can lead to a wrongful conviction. Evidence on the reliability of eyewitness testimony is mixed. According to some researchers, the accounts provided by witnesses are generally reliable. However, the veracity of eyewitness testimony is often called into question because of the factors that influence the ability of a witness to accurately recall an event.

The Rashomon effect haunts the many strands of the investigations into the 2002 Gujarat riots, Sunanda Pushkar death case, Tikku-Kakkar double murder, Aarushi-Hemraj double murder, Neeraj Grover murder, the Nithari massacre, the latest Sushant Singh Rajput case, Disha Salian case, Palghar lynching case, and the horrendous Hathras gangrape … the list is too long.

When law enforcement seemingly takes weeks, months and years to track down, catch and prosecute an offender, people are left scared; when a dangerous criminal is released early from prison due to lack of eyewitness, he can go on to commit a series of violent crimes.

A famous book by James Oleson, a criminologist based at the University of Auckland, suggests that most criminals are real-life geniuses and they often are prone to commit crimes. Criminals change colour like chameleons; they know how to blend truth with lies. They look normal and appear normal. Dangerous people do not look any different than non-dangerous people. Usually, they are good at creating a good impression. They deactivate people with their charm. Criminals behave cool under crisis. Even if they commit murder by accident, they are not the types who will seem restless or agitated. Rather, they think strategically by creating a story quickly in order to divert attention away from themselves.

They mislead police by destroying evidences. And, most often, they go scot free without enough evidences. Despite what gets portrayed on television, most crime scenes are not covered in fingerprints, DNA and blood. Sometimes, the police do not even have a body. Forensic evidence is very fragile and it doesn’t last forever. It can be destroyed by weather, environment, the culprit and even wild animals.

Lastly, most crimes grow cold because of lack of witnesses. Many people who could help with an investigation don’t help because they fear their own life, and they don’t trust the police.

The author is a management thinker and blogger

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