You can't always trust eyewitness' accounts Eyes may deceive witnesses of shooting Witnesses' eyes may deceive them

October 30, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

LET'S POLYGRAPH all witnesses to the Larry Hubbard shooting.

Maybe that will bring some perspective. Maybe that will end some of the speculation as to what happened on Barclay Street the evening of Oct. 7, when Baltimore police Officer Barry Hamilton shot Hubbard in the back of the head as, according to police sources, Hubbard struggled to get control of Officer Robert Quick's gun. Hamilton and his partner Quick were trying to arrest Hubbard after he bolted from what police described as a stolen car.

None of the more than half-dozen investigations into the shooting has been completed, which hasn't stopped people from concluding that they know exactly what happened. At Monday's City Council meeting, Lawrence Bell, the president of the body, said Baltimore legislators need to acknowledge a wrong had been done. Councilwoman Paula Branch of the 2nd District added that, based on what she'd heard, she couldn't consider Hubbard's shooting justified.

Based on what she's heard, huh? Branch has been listening to witnesses again. So far seven witnesses claim they saw the incident. They contend that Hubbard was not going for Quick's gun and that Hamilton shot him as he pleaded for his life. And we all know that witnesses are always reliable, right?

Wrong. Eyewitness testimony is notorious for being unreliable, so shaky that you have to wonder why it's admissible in court and polygraph results aren't. We don't know how many people have been wrongly convicted or accused based on eyewitness testimony or identification, but several cases are renowned nationally.

The most famous -- or infamous -- example of a what I believe was a wrongful conviction based on eyewitness identification is the case of Muhammad Abdul-Aziz and Khalil Islam. In 1965 they were known, respectively, as Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson of the Nation of Islam's Harlem mosque. Four days after Malcolm X was shot to death, Abdul-Aziz and Islam were arrested and charged with his murder. It seems some of those ever-reliable eyewitnesses had identified the pair from photographs as two of the assassins sitting in the third row of the Audubon Ballroom who shot Malcolm X as he was about to give a speech.

But Benjamin Karim, then an aide to Malcolm X, said he knew both men personally and would certainly have seen them when they came into the Audubon Ballroom. And, Karim added, he would definitely have noticed them sitting three rows from the podium when he introduced Malcolm X.

But the eyewitnesses persisted in their testimony, identifying Abdul-Aziz and Islam as the murderers at their trial. (Karim was never called to testify.) Thus, in my opinion and in the opinion of many others who have studied the case, did two men spend 20 years in prison, based strictly on eyewitness testimony.

Those who've unquestioningly accepted the statements of the seven witnesses in the Baltimore police shooting will protest that they number seven, and that seven people couldn't possibly be in error.

Wrong again. Earlier this year no fewer than eight eyewitnesses -- as least two of whom were victims -- "positively" identified an Orange, N.J., man named Terrance Everett as the hoodlum who robbed them and then shot police Officer Joyce Carnegie. Cops arrested Everett, roughed him up a bit and held him for over a week. Later another man was arrested and confessed to the robberies and the murder. In Everett's case, eight supposedly reliable eyewitnesses nearly sent an innocent man to New Jersey's death row.

In Baltimore seven eyewitnesses have sworn Hamilton shot Hubbard for no reason. That has led to folks bungee-jumping to the conclusion that Hamilton is a racist murderer and Hubbard's death an execution. The activists clamoring for Hamilton's head are acting as expected. But you have to get a little worried when political leaders, instead of urging folks to cool their heels and wait until the investigations are done, start bungee-jumping to conclusions themselves.

At the very least, the City Council could have requested that polygraph tests be given to all witnesses and the results made public. Bell and Branch, when called to see if they knew about the disturbing unreliability of eyewitnesses, did not return calls by deadline. But they can make penance for their folly this Monday, when the council meets again.

This time, instead of making Hamilton the poster boy for police brutality, they can urge Baltimoreans to sit tight, please shut up, and let the investigations take their course.

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