Two days ago, I rented a Zipcar to pick Rio up. The Zipcar did not have seatbelts in the back. We ended the reservation and complained to the company. They said they would have the seatbelt issue fixed. Rio and I promptly headed to have some ice cream and play in the local park, and it was only when we got home that we realized we had forgotten Rio’s backpack in the rental car. We swung by there and the car was gone. So, the following day, we called Zipcar, were told that the car was in the garage being fixed, and it would be in today. They made me a reservation so I could open the car and look for the forgotten bag.\

Today I went there. The vehicle I had driven, a black Honda, wasn’t there. Instead, there was a silver Honda.

I called Zipcar. The customer support person assured me that the car I had driven was silver. “No!” I said. “It was black.” “This is the car you rented,” she said. “That can’t be!” I said. “This one has seatbelts, and my son’s bag is not in the backseat.” “The car has seatbelts because it’s been fixed,” said the customer support rep. I raised my voice. I got angry. Then, a little doubt crept into my mind: Maybe I’m crazy and she’s right? But how can that be? The car was black! I had a brainwave. I popped open the trunk. There was Rio’s backpack. The service rep was 100% right. I was 100% wrong. I was mortified and apologized profusely.

I came home and asked Rio: “Do you remember the color of the car we drove two days ago?” Rio said, without blinking: “Silver.”

Whenever I teach wrongful convictions, I marvel at the percentage of miscarriages of justice that start off with a wrongful eyewitness identification. The National Registry of Exonerations identifies various reasons for these problems. The upshot is that 27% of wrongful convictions stem at least in part from a mistaken witness ID.

The share of eyewitness identification problem in wrongful conviction climbs up to 66% in cases of sexual assault:

But it was quite something to experience in person the tricks our minds can play on us. To be fair, I’m turning 50 this year, and for the last year I’ve operated under an insane mental load, dealing with mindnumbing grief (personally and nationally), professional and social isolation, full time work, full time grad school, rabbinical school, and of course parenting. It’s a lot. But consider that many eyewitnesses in criminal cases might be experiencing mental burdens and distress, especially if they have been victims of violent crime. They are absolutely sure they remember the events correctly. And they are wrong.

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