How Can Two Witnesses See the Same Event Differently? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In a previous post, we saw that the state of California explicitly instructs jurors not to disregard eyewitness testimony that seems to be inconsistent with other testimony. But how exactly can two witnesses see the same event and describe it differently?

J. Warner Wallace was a detective for many years and had to dig through divergent eyewitness accounts frequently. In his book, Cold-Case Christianity, he recalls one particular robbery where he received seemingly conflicting reports from two witnesses.

Many years ago I investigated a robbery in which a male suspect entered a small grocery store, walked up to the counter, and calmly contacted the cashier. The suspect removed a handgun from his waistband and placed it on the counter. He pointed it at the cashier, using his right hand to hold the gun on the counter, his finger on the trigger. The suspect quietly told the cashier to empty the register of its money and place it in a plastic bag. The cashier complied and gave the robber all the money in the drawer. The robber then calmly walked from the store.

This robbery was observed by two witnesses, who were properly separated and interviewed apart from one another. When the crime report was assigned to me as the investigator, I read the officer’s summary and wondered if the witnesses were describing the same robber.

One witness, named Sylvia Ramos, was a 38-year old interior designer. She was married with kids and picking up milk on the way home from work. Her description of the robbery suspect was as follows: younger boy in his teens, very polite with sweet voice, did not have a gun, bought something at the store, wore an Izod polo shirt, had no vehicle.

Another witness, named Paul Meher, was a 23-year old apprentice plumber. He was single with no kids, and visiting the cashier on his day off. His description of the suspect was as follows: man about 24-25 years old, threatening scowl, had a Ruger P95 9mm handgun, bought nothing at the store, might have worn a t-shirt, ran to a 90’s tan Nissan.

Wallace continues his account of the investigation:

At first, these statements seemed to describe two different men committing two different crimes. But, the more I spoke with the witnesses, the more I realized that both were reliable in spite of the fact they seemed to be saying different things about the suspect.

Sylvia Ramos was hurrying home from work and stopped at the store to purchase some milk and a few small items. She stood in line behind the suspect as he calmly committed the robbery. While she heard the tone of his voice, she never heard his words distinctly, and she never saw a gun. She described him as a polite young man in his teens. Based on the way the cashier handed the robber the bag, Sylvia believed that the robber made a purchase prior to committing the crime. Sylvia immediately recognized the suspect’s blue shirt as a classic IZOD polo because many of the men in her office wore this style of shirt when she first started her career as a designer. In fact, she had recently purchased one for her husband. Sylvia watched the robber walk slowly out of the business and across the parking lot as he left the area. She was sure that he didn’t have a “getaway” car.

We will see how Paul Meher viewed events in part 2.

  • barry

    You seem to have overlooked that it is significant to the fact finder when a discrepancy of testimony between two or more eyewitnesses occurs, since they must then decide a) whether the discrepancies can be harmonized with each other and other known facts, and b) if not, they must decide which of the conflicting testimonies are wrong and exclude these.

    Of course, you don’t want skeptics to think ANY of the testimony in the gospels is false.