Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash
Inspector Rajan was baffled. He couldn’t understand what was going on. As a part of the Mumbai police force, he had dealt with plenty road accident cases. The two parties involved in the accident always told contradicting stories blaming each other, and of course the BMC for the deplorable condition of the roads.
So it did not surprise him, that the rich business man driving the SUV insisted that the bike had suddenly changed lanes in front of him, and there was nothing he could have done to react in time to prevent the collision. Traffic was flowing smoothly along the highway and the man insisted he was driving at the speed of surrounding traffic. But on highways, that speed is fairly high, and it wasn’t possible for him to brake any harder. The person behind him in the i10 had only just managed to avoid colliding with him.
Nor was it surprising that the wounded delivery guy insisted that the SUV driver was driving too fast. “How is it my fault that I had to swerve to avoid a pothole? Why was he so close behind me, and driving so fast. He lives in Mumbai, and he should know of the bad road conditions. Rich people always want to speed in their fast cars.” Moin Akbar complained. “I come from a poor family, Sir. This is my livelihood. With my leg like this, I will not be able to earn, and my family will starve. He must pay for damages.”
“But I wasn’t close behind him. I was in a different lane.” The car owner objected. “Besides, the pothole he pointed to was small. There was no need to swerve so much. He was driving carelessly like these two wheeler drivers always do, as if they own the road. They just weave in and out of lanes and then blame car drivers.” Mr. Ashok Gupta fumed.
The inspector wanted to tear his hair. He had heard the same stupid story so many times. The BMC made shoddy roads, and it was difficult to decide who was at fault. The problem was that the man had been so badly injured, the doctors had to amputate his leg. It was his job to investigate the case.
Rajan prided himself on being a fair and impartial investigator. He wouldn’t let the pompous rich fellow intimidate him, nor would he fall for the delivery boy’s sob-story. He needed hard evidence, and the accounts of impartial witnesses.
On a sleepy Monday afternoon, the latter would have usually been difficult to find, but as luck would have it, there were two impartial witnesses. So Rajan should have been ecstatic. But he wasn’t.
His problem was the conflicting testimony from the two witnesses. Are they both crazy, or is one of them deliberately lying he wondered? Why would they lie? As far as he could tell, neither of them had any connection with either person involved in the accident. The accident had been far from the home of both parties so the witnesses could not know them as local residents. In spite, of investigating the matter thoroughly, he could find no personal or professional connections between either of the witnesses and the men involved in the accident. It had been established beyond a doubt that they were strangers.
He read the witness reports again.
Name: Akshay Pathak
Address: Number 54 Ashok Nagar Chawl, Off WE Highway, Goregaon East, Mumbai 400063
It was a warm Monday afternoon and I had come back early from work. I was sitting on the step outside my house with a cup of tea looking at the highway.
The delivery guy on the bike was on the left most lane, and the car was a few feet behind him one lane right of him maintaining a fixed distance. Suddenly, the bike changed lanes almost diagonally and slowed down as it did so. He did not even signal with his hand.
The driver of the car had no time to react. He pressed the brakes very hard, immediately. The car screeched, but before it could fully stop it bashed into the bike. The delivery man fell off the bike and his leg got caught under the wheel of the car.
Name: Nandini Desai
Address: Number 51 Ashok Nagar Chawl, Off WE Highway, Goregaon East, Mumbai 400063
I was standing outside my house waiting for my children to return from school. The delivery guy on the bike was driving on the left most lane. The car was initially far behind him. It leaned to wards the left and sped up suddenly, to overtake a truck that was on it’s right. It was only a few feet behind the bike when it finished overtaking.
The delivery guy had to swerve a little to avoid the pothole, but the car was just in front of me then, and I saw the man was either talking or singing, I don’t know. He took a few seconds to notice what was happening, and by the time he reacted it was too late. He pressed the brake, but he could not stop in time. He ran in to the bike and came to a full halt only after crushing the delivery man’s leg.
Inspector Rajan had prepared this report after questioning both witnesses several times over a period of three days. On would have hoped that as they reflected on the incidents and jogged their memories about various details their stories would get closer and eventually converge. But no! With every retelling and added detail, their stories had diverged further and further apart. With years of experience in questioning people, Rajan’s gut told him they were both telling the truth. But that was impossible! They insisted the fault lay with different parties. And nothing he suggested could get either of them to consider a different narrative.
To add to this issue, there were other complications. Ashok Gupta’s breathalyzer test had shown borderline results. He confessed that he was returning from a colleague’s birthday party, where he insisted had drunk only a single glass of wine, since he knew he would be driving. There was an open bar and no one could vouch for him. So there was just his word, but the borderline reading on the breathalyzer seemed to confirm his story. Still, even that much alcohol, could affect his driving, or not.
His cellphone records did not show him on a call during the drive so, but could he be singing and distracted as the witness reported. He vehemently denied it. But the breathalyzer test cast doubt on his claim and what earthly reason could the witness have to lie?
But what about Akshay? He did not mention any of this in his testimony. He seemed to have focused on the biker, who was closer to his house. Did the Moin Akbar actually drive diagonally without signaling? He insisted he had stuck out his arm, but had to withdraw it quickly to maintain balance. He also insisted he had switched on his right indicator, a claim firmly negated by Akshay.
Then there was the obvious discrepancy in the testimonies of the two witnesses. One said the car was driving along maintaining a fixed distance, and the other said it had seeded up to overtake a truck. Nandini had a better view and her testimony was more detailed. So should he believe her?
This case was getting more confusing by the minute. Rajan hoped that the deeper investigation into the lives of the witnesses might shed some light on the situation. So when sub-inspector Patel arrived with two folders, he opened them eagerly and devoured the information with great interest.
Patel had highlighted one interesting incident from each witness’s recent past.
Nandini’s son Suraj used to be a delivery boy. One night, about a year ago, he was making a delivery after midnight, when a car full of rich drunk youngsters nudged into his bike causing him to topple. Then they got out of the car and beat him up. When the police arrived, the youngsters blamed her son for driving dangerously and cutting in front of them.
One of the youngsters testified that when they stopped and he went to check on Suraj to see if he was okay, Suraj caught him by his collar and threatened to beat him, and that’s was when the others came to his rescue and attacked Suraj. Another one of the youngsters had political connections and pressed charges on Suraj for reckless driving and assault.
So Suraj was arrested. He was in custody for three days before unclear CCTV footage from a distant camera stood in his favor and several character witnesses from Suraj’s neighborhood tried to clear him. Lucky for Suraj, the parents of the youngsters were not too keen on pushing forward with the case and he was released. Nandini refused to let Suraj continue his job, and when her employer learned of what had happened, he offered Suraj a job as an office boy.
So that probably explains Nandini’s sympathy for the delivery boy, Rajan mused. Maybe this traumatic memory led her to sub-consciously focus on facts that would help exonerate him and perhaps she unconsciously embellished a little. Maybe Mr. Gupta did not really delay before hitting the brake. Rajan decided to suspend judgment until he read the relevant bit about Akshay.
Akshay had changed jobs a few months ago, when he was dismissed by his previous employer after an unpleasant traffic accident. Akshay claimed that the pizza delivery guy came out of nowhere, overtook him from the left and then just swerved right in front of him. To avoid running over the bike, he had braked with all his might and brought the car to a screeching halt, when he heard a thud, and he knew he had been rear-ended.
The pizza delivery guy had scampered off, and there was no trace of him. To add to his ill-luck the light ahead turned red just then. The guy behind assumed he had overacted to the red light, and no one believed him about the delivery person’s bike. Everyone assumed he was just making it up as an excuse. His employer was very angry and dismissed him without that month’s salary, explaining that he would use it to pay for the damages to the car, which were substantial.
No wonder Akshay had been so vehement that the fault lay with the delivery guy. His previous experience caused him to see the accident in a completely different light from Nandini.
Past experiences of both witnesses colored their perception of an accident that had probably occurred in the blink of an eye. Their prejudices had filled in the rest of the details over time. How reliable were eye-witnesses, Rajan wondered. Perhaps neither party was to blame, and this truly was a freak accident or perhaps one of them was responsible, but the witness testimony wasn’t going to tell the true story.
The saddest part was that the witnesses firmly believed they were telling the truth and to the best of their knowledge they probably were.
He recalled a fight his daughters had had a week ago when they blamed each other for it. Each one had probably overplayed the fault of the other and underplayed their own faults.
He had been angry with them for lying. But now he wondered. Were they lying, or were they just telling what they believed was the truth? We tell our kids not to lie, but what’s the truth is not so easy to know because we all just take in those parts of the truth that make sense to us and ignore the rest.
We routinely rely on eye-witnesses to help administer justice, but if two seemingly unbiased witnesses could tell such different stories, it made him wonder how many times innocent people were sent to jail or murderers went scot-free based on the unreliable testimony of supposedly unbiased witnesses.
This story was inspired by this article about memory formation and retrieval.