by Walter Brasch
She quietly walked into the classroom and stood there, just inside the door, against a wall.
The professor, his back to her, continued his lecture, unaware of her presence until his students’ eyes began focusing upon her rather than him.
“Yes?” he asked, turning to her. Just “Yes.” Nothing more.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” she said peacefully. He was confused. So she said it again, this time a little louder.
“Ma’am,” he began, but she cut him off. He tried to defuse the situation, but couldn’t reason with her. She pulled a gun from her purse and shot him, and then quickly left. He recovered immediately.
It took less than a minute.
The scene was yet another exercise in the professor’s newswriting class, this one unannounced but highly planned. His assignment was for the students to quickly write down everything they could about the incident. What happened. What was said. What she looked like. What she was wearing. Just the facts. Nothing more.
Everyone got some of the information right, but no one got all the facts, even the ones they were absolutely positively sure they saw or heard correctly. And, most interestingly, the “gun” the visitor used and which the students either couldn’t identify or misidentified was in reality a . . . banana; a painted black banana, but a banana nevertheless. The actual gunshot was on tape on a hidden recorder activated by the professor.
It was a lesson in observation and truth.
Witnesses often get the facts wrong, unable to distinguish events happening on top of each other. Sometimes they even want to “help” the reporter and say what they think the reporter wants to hear.
Reporters are society’s witnesses who record history by interviewing other witnesses, and they all make mistakes, not because they want to, but because everyone’s life experiences and perceptions fog reality. Put 10 reporters into a PTA meeting or court trial, and there will be 10 different stories.
Of the infinite number of facts and observations that occur, reporters must select a few. Which few they select, which thousands they deliberately don’t select—and, more important—which parts they don’t even know exist—all make up news, usually written under deadline pressure. Thus, it isn’t unusual for readers to wonder how reporters could have been in the same meeting as they were since the published stories didn’t seem to reflect the reality of that meeting.
It’s no different with witnesses to a shooting on a public street.
Put 10 witnesses in the same area. All may get some common facts accurately. But, each witness sees the same scene different. It may be because they see it from different locations, from different perspectives, from different backgrounds.
Now, place a police officer into the scene. And let’s assume the officer shot and killed an unarmed suspect, one he may have believed was posing an imminent threat to his life. Now, let’s have the police officer testify before a grand jury as to what happened.
What happened at the scene, and what the police officer later remembered may be different. The police officer may not have lied to the grand jury; he may have embedded into his own memory something different from what had happened—or why it happened—or how it happened. Time continually changes our perceptions of reality.
Add in a prosecutor, because prosecutors are the ones who control grand juries. They are the ones who present evidence, call witnesses, and create the narrative the grand jury follows. There are no defense attorneys. There are no cross-examinations.
In one city in America, a prosecutor chose his witnesses and how to question them.
In one city in America, a 12-member grand jury—each with his or her own backgrounds and perceptions—listened to what was presented to them. They struggled to determine the facts, to try to reach a just verdict. And, after the prosecutor presented what he chose to present, that grand jury decided not to indict a police officer who shot and killed a suspect.
A maxim of the way the law is practiced, not how it is written, is that if they wanted to, prosecutors could get grand juries to indict a ham sandwich.
A maxim of life is that truth will eventually emerge—no matter how long it takes.
[Walter Brasch has been a journalist more than four decades, covering everything from local service club luncheons to the Congress and the White House. For many of those years, he was also a professor of journalism. Dr. Brasch is the author of 20 books; his most recent one is Fracking Pennsylvania, an in-depth investigation of the effects of horizontal fracturing upon health and the environment, with special investigation of the relationships between politics and corporate business.]