By Erik Johns
NEWARK – Eyewitness accounts are often the crucial cog in a criminal case.
In some cases, they provide the details on what happened from someone who was there, leading to a conviction. And in other cases, eyewitness testimony falls through.
As would be expected, prosecutors and defense lawyers have divergent views on the nature of eyewitness reports as evidence.
On Jan.12, Timothy Roberts, 19, of Sunbury, was released from jail and his murder charge dismissed after investigators reportedly determined that three of his friends had lied to police about the stabbing death of James Price, 18, also of Sunbury.
For Roberts' lawyer, Robert Calesaric, this is just one more example of the lack of credibility in eyewitness accounts. "It happens more than you'd like to think," he said, adding that in the last year alone, four of his clients' cases have been thrown out because of faulty eyewitness accounts.
Calesaric even said that at one point he, himself, was a victim of violent crime and nearly wrongly identified a suspect because of similarity in appearance.
Calesaric, a former assistant county prosecutor, says he's seen the fallibility of eyewitnesses from every angle. "I've seen eyewitnesses from every different perspective you can, and they're horrible," he said. "Prosecutors do put a lot of weight in them, and I'm not sure why."
Licking County Prosecutor Robert Becker has more faith in eyewitness statements as credible evidence. "We put a lot of stock in them, and juries do to," he said.
Becker said that although he believes in eyewitness accounts as good evidence, they do still have their problems. "If someone's going to lie to you, it doesn't have any value," he said. "(If there's a serious inconsistency in eyewitness testimony), the question becomes 'Is there a mistake because someone is lying or because they're simply mistaken?"
Becker said prosecutors take steps they have solid evidence. A major part of that is collecting additional physical evidence. "We always try to get any kind of evidence that's going to back up eyewitness accounts," he said.
In the case of Roberts, Becker said – and Calesaric agreed that the police did the right thing in arresting him and charging him based on the evidence they had at the time. "It's possible for everything to go right as far as the investigation is concerned, but get the wrong result," Becker said. "Just because somebody is later released from jail doesn't mean things went wrong."