There is a huge difference between, say, going to the dentist now versus a hundred years ago, when it was just a drunk guy sticking leeches onto your chest and punching you until the defective tooth flew out. Yet, if you commit a crime, you'll find that much of that process hasn't changed in decades, if not centuries. Is it because these techniques that you've seen in a million crime dramas are perfect and impossible to be improved upon?
Hell, no. It's just that some habits are really hard to freaking change. And it's too bad, because ...
You've seen this in a thousand movies: A half-dozen salty-faced ne'er-do-wells stand in front of a growth chart while a tearful old woman sits on the other side of one-way glass. She finally points to one of them and says, "That's the shitbag who took my purse! Don't bend over for the soap, you fucker!"
This classic scene is called a simultaneous lineup, and really, what better way is there to make sure you got the right guy than to stand his ass right in front of the witness?
"Which one of these two men punched you in your stupid face?"
Well, Actually ...
Just about anything, really.
The simultaneous lineup sucks, mainly because it's common for witnesses to just point out whoever looks the closest to what they remember, whether the actual perp is up there or not. The question the police want answered is "Do you see the guy who mugged you up there?" but the witness always hears it as "Tell us which of those six guys looks the most like the dude who mugged you. And it has to be one of them, or else you've wasted everyone's time."
"No one's out there stopping murders now, thanks to you."
And it's an even bigger problem when the officer standing there with the witness is the one who's working the case -- the officer is going to, consciously or unconsciously, subtly do everything he or she can to make that little old lady pick the guy the cops think did it (scientific experiments always have to control for this, otherwise the results are considered invalid).
There is an easy fix -- it's called a sequential lineup. The witness sees photos of people one at a time instead of all at once. The trick is not to tell the witnesses how many photos there are in total, and to only allow them to go through the pictures once. That's all there is to it -- it prevents witnesses from simply picking someone out because they're the best option in the bunch, it encourages them to keep looking until they see one who actually fits their memory, and it eliminates the chance for an officer to say things like "Now, did you look closely at No. 2? Look at him again, with his squinty, purse-stealing eyes ..."
"No, the guy who robbed me was painted more maroon than red."
But despite its unquestionable superiority over the old-fashioned lineup, a nationwide survey of U.S. police departments revealed that it's glaringly absent from nearly every precinct. If their objection is that you can't ask a photograph to step forward or turn around or say things like "Give me the keys, you fucking cocksucker," there's also the option of just using more people in the lineup -- just a few more choices make the rate of correct identification soar -- but again, you want the witness to see them one at a time.
So why do they stick to the old way? Well, a cynical person would say that some departments like knowing that they can subtly steer a witness to finger the "right" guy. But it could also be that they grew up watching the same cop movies we did and think the other way is cooler.
People always joke about how stupid juries are ("I'm being judged by 12 people too dumb to get out of jury duty!"), but probably everyone reading this thinks that they would be a good juror. You're a smart person -- hell, you're spending your spare time reading this article about criminal justice procedures rather than watching skateboarding fail videos. Any reasonably intelligent person who pays attention is going to make the right call in the jury box.
"This is a gun. Even though it is in a sandwich bag, it is not for eating. Are we clear so far?"
Well, Actually ...
Imagine you're sitting on the jury of a murder trial where someone's life is in your hands, and the judge reads the following instructions to you out loud:
"In regard to the trier of fact, reasonable doubt is not a mere possible doubt, a speculative, imaginary, or forced doubt. If, after carefully considering, comparing, and weighing all the evidence, there is not an abiding conviction of guilt, or, if, having a conviction, it is one which is not stable but one which wavers and vacillates, then the charge is not proved beyond every reasonable doubt and you must find the defendant not guilty because the doubt is reasonable."
"So ... he's guilty then, or ... wait, what?"
Even for somebody who watches a lot of court dramas, hearing that out loud would sound like a word casserole. But that dense mass of double negatives and disjointed phrasing is the actual instructions intended to be read to a jury. As a result, juries frequently have no idea what the fuck they're supposed to be doing -- in one study, half of jury members didn't understand that the defendant doesn't need to prove him- or herself innocent, and 86 percent of criminal jurors don't know what constitutes proof of guilt. Of jurors asked to participate in a test on the things they should absolutely know after they've heard their instructions, most of them score about 40 percent.
Now, we don't want to alarm you, or imply that if you go to court your fate will be decided by 12 confused people who just want to get the hell out of there before the judge reads more cryptic riddles to them in Latin. We're just saying that instances of baffled jurors making terrible decisions are shockingly well-documented.
"We find the defendant ... fruity."
OK, so if these people are so befuddled by the process, why don't they just ask somebody?
The answer: They're probably not allowed to. It's up to the individual courts to decide if they'll allow jurors to talk and, spoiler alert, most of them don't (and in five U.S. states, it's absolutely prohibited for the jury to ask questions during any point in the trial). They are apparently afraid that the jurors would be constantly blurting embarrassing bullshit like Ralph from The Simpsons ("Excuse me, Mister Judge, I think I sharted again!"), but there are instances of jurors asking really good questions. For instance, in a lawsuit over a crippling hand injury, a juror had to ask whether the plaintiff was right- or left-handed. Everyone else involved in the trial knew, but no one thought of mentioning it to the jury.
"Also, which one is the plaintiff?"
The only legitimate reason not to allow juries to ask questions is because it makes trials take longer. Trials that involve jury questions are an average of half an hour longer, or as everyone else may know it, the "order" half of a Law & Order episode.
Wouldn't avoiding jury confusion be a good use of that time? Hell, until recently, most courts wouldn't even let the jury take notes. All of the things they let you do in school so you'd be ready for the exam aren't allowed when some guy's life is on the line.
Here's another one you've seen in every cop show or movie. If you want to get the big fish criminal, you need to catch some low-level thug and make him a deal: You'll go easy on him if he rolls over on his boss.
It happens in real life all the time -- for a textbook example, look no further than Clarence Zacke, a former hit man who was sentenced to 180 years but had it reduced by two-thirds because he worked as a prison snitch. In exchange for testimony against other convicts, the prosecution for those cases would promise to cut up to six decades off his sentence each time he helped.
It's not pretty, but how else can you get results? Nobody knows the inside of a criminal operation like another criminal, and you know they're telling the truth because its their own ass on the line.
"Now understand that if you're lying, you could go to j- oh, wait ... shit."
Well, Actually ...
They have every motivation to lie, and nothing to lose by doing it.
For instance, at some point Zacke ran out of things to snitch about, but still hadn't shaved off all the years of his sentence. So, he got creative and just started making shit up. He helped lock away a man named Wilton Dedge for burglary and sexual battery by claiming that Dedge confessed everything to him on the bus one day. Dedge spent 22 years in prison based on Zacke's witness testimony. That's how long it took for DNA evidence to exonerate Dedge, which meant he got an apologetic "Sorry we locked you up for 22 years in hell" slap on the back from the court and a ride home. But Zacke still got decades taken off his sentence for all his help.
Zacke, seen here enjoying his "Fuck the Man" release party.
This isn't a one-off occurrence, either. Unreliable snitches are a gold mine for prosecutors. Of all the people on death row who were finally proven innocent, about 46 percent were there in the first place because of these incentivized jailhouse informers who are rewarded with reduced sentences or special treatment and sometimes even money. Well, shit, if we can't trust the most amoral, duplicitous members of society, then who can we trust?
Texas passed a law last year that makes evidence obtained from prisoners in exchange for leniency, specifically in murder cases, inadmissible. Oh, and the only way "He totally told me he did it!" testimony from cellmates can be used is if it's recorded (so that, you know, we have some proof that the conversation actually occurred). But of course we can't expect the rest of the world to be as advanced and progressive as Texas.
The "Our Law Code Starts and Ends With the Barrel of a Gun" State.