Lawrence S. Huffman: When eyewitnesses fail

By Lawrence S. Huffman - Guest Columnist

In the early days of television, there was a very popular, half hour detective series titled “Dragnet,” in which two Los Angeles detectives investigated a crime, solved it and arrested the perpetrator in a half an hour. They had no time to spare, so all of their conversations with witnesses began with the admonition, “just the facts ma’am, just the facts.”

It is the crux of all investigations to determine the facts of the event, and that’s not always easy. It is particularly difficult when the investigator is faced with conflicting eyewitness testimony. It is well recognized by investigators that they may get many different descriptions of the same event from different people who may have different motives. Some witnesses are just mistaken and others have been induced to tell false stories to aid another party. It is the resolution of these differences that is an art.

The classic factual dispute in my experience happened on an afternoon in the early ’70s when two Lima police officers received a call regarding a neighborhood dispute on South Union Street, just behind St. John’s Church. Upon arrival, they discovered two ladies of color engaged in a shouting match over possession of a bicycle on which each had a firm grip and claimed that it belonged to her child. As the officers began to try to calm them by talking to them, one of the women suddenly grabbed the pistol from the holster of one of the officers and fired a shot at him. The bullet grazed the side of his head, taking a piece out of the side of his ear. His partner immediately drew his gun and fired a return shot, striking her in the left armpit and passing through her body causing her immediate death. The usual ambulance, police response and coroner activities followed. The body was autopsied by Dr. William Collins at Lima Memorial Hospital.

An immediate furor occurred among the neighbors and friends of the deceased as well as persons who considered themselves community leaders, protesting the police shooting of the woman. Protests, marches and sermons followed for the next several days. The autopsy report was received several days later and described the cause of death as a single bullet wound in the left armpit and traveling across the body causing instant death. The report did not seem to calm the community much. Shortly thereafter, I heard from a very well-respected local lawyer who called me and said, “Larry, we’ve got real trouble. There are a number of eyewitnesses who have given written statements claiming that these two policemen threw her to the ground and stood over her pumping bullets into her until their guns were empty.” This was entirely contradictory to the autopsy findings.

In an effort to get the facts straight, calm everyone down and resolve the issue, the lawyer and I decided to have a private meeting with the local community leader-spokesman at the heart of the claim in my private law office, two days later on a Sunday afternoon without notice to anyone. Present were myself, the late great Chief of Police William K. Davenport, the community leader and the lawyer. It began with him repeating the allegation by his witnesses of the “pumping her full of bullets” version of the incident. I replied that the autopsy surgeon’s report said there was only one shot. He then replied, “we have seen the autopsy report. We don’t believe it. We think he is lying to protect the police.” I was stunned by that as Bill Collins was as straight as Bill Davenport. He then said, “we are not going to bury her tomorrow. We are going out to the cemetery for the church services, and when everyone has left, we are going to load the body into a hearse and take it to a pathologist of color named Dr. Frank Cleveland in Cincinnati for a private autopsy, and we are sure his findings will confirm what our witnesses are saying and that the police and their stooge Collins are lying.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. Dr. Frank Cleveland, a gentleman of color, was a nationally known forensic pathologist. I had heard him speak a number of times over the years at seminars and legal meetings where he lectured on autopsies and other medical subjects were discussed. I knew that Cleveland wasn’t about to report anything that wasn’t absolutely true, no matter what color anyone concerned in the matter was. I was so confident that I put my money where my mouth was and said, “I will tell you what I will do. I will pay Dr. Cleveland’s fees of $800 for the autopsy from my prosecutor’s expense account on two conditions. One, he sends each of us a copy of his autopsy report, and two, the day after we receive it, we will call a press conference and reveal his findings and each of us will announce that we believe his findings are accurate.” He had just as much confidence in his eyewitnesses as I did in Dr. Frank Cleveland.

We waited three or four days and Dr. Cleveland’s report arrived and just as I knew it would, he reported that death occurred as the result of a single bullet wound under the left arm with the bullet travelling through her body; almost word for word with Dr. Collins’ report. I was, of course, reassured and called the other lawyer to arrange a time for the promised press conference. He said, “Larry, I haven’t been able to reach him, but I am still trying.” Several days later, he called and said, “he has moved out of town and no one seems to have a forwarding address.” To this day, there has never been a public disclosure of Dr. Cleveland’s report, the identity of the officers involved, or the second autopsy. The whole matter just died and went away.

Moral of the Story: Never bet your house on eyewitness testimony.

By Lawrence S. Huffman

Guest Columnist

Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a guest columnist in The Lima News.

Lawrence S. Huffman is an attorney in Lima and a guest columnist in The Lima News.

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