The Corner

In Ferguson, Witness Testimony Was Never Black And White

The following chart, currently making the rounds on Twitter, is an instructive exercise in how easily statistics can mislead:

The uncurious viewer of such a chart would have little reason not to conclude, based on this information, that Michael Brown was in the process of surrendering to Darren Wilson when he was shot – after all, that seems to have been the testimony of 16 witnesses who appeared before a St. Louis County grand jury.

The truth is, of course, more complicated. Here is the more detailed chart, courtesy of PBS’s NewsHour, from which the above information is culled:

One might note, looking at the information as it is represented here, that Witness 35, who states that Brown’s hands were up when he was fired on, also states that Brown charged Wilson. Witnesses 44 and 44 No. 2 say the same. Additionally, twelve witnesses who state that Brown’s hands were up either did not answer, or were not asked, whether Brown also ever put his hands at his waist — a movement that, according to Wilson’s testimony, suggested that he might be reaching for a weapon. These do not necessarily indicate contradictions, but clearly the situation — and the testimony — was complicated.

As the Associated Press discovered. An AP review of the released testimony “reveal[ed] numerous examples of statements made during the shooting investigation that were inconsistent, fabricated or provably wrong.” Besides conflicting with the testimony of others, or with itself, witnesses’ testimony conflicted with the physical evidence.

Obviously, the above graphic is a gross oversimplification, if not outright misrepresentation, of the witness testimony. But it is worth noting that even PBS’s graphic inevitably misleads, by polishing out the qualifications — and myriad other ineffables — that are crucial to a jury’s deliberations. Not every response is, or should be, equally weighted. The notion that the jury should simply have tallied up ayes and nays to a given question and decided accordingly is naïve.

Of course, those who have seen fit to loot and riot have no interest in the evidence. But it does not help the situation that what little evidence might gain traction is presented egregiously distorted.

Ian Tuttle — Ian Tuttle is the former Thomas L. Rhodes Journalism Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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