We returned from the weekend to discover that the little lemon tree on the street side of our house had been hideously attacked. Its whole, generously ripening crop had been lopped off with shears with no regard for anything but the theft of the fruit. Poor tree. I would not wish to trivialize the hateful associations of the word "rape," but this did feel like a particularly cruel violation. I can only assume that some person had reached such a state of desperation that they were reduced to stealing lemons to sell for pennies apiece at a neighborhood street corner. (The thieves who steal the lemons on the garden side of our house are of the four-footed and bushy-tailed variety: squirrels. I have to say, hold it less against them than against the human kind.)
Rape, though... I was much moved by the story to which "Sixty Minutes" devoted two of its segments last night--an investigation into the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The woman at the heart of the story, Jennifer Thompson, had so convincingly identified a black suspect, Ronald Cotton, as her rapist that the jury sent him to jail for twenty years. She herself was genuinely convinced that her testimony was reliable; she had, after all, taken great pains to take note of the physical characteristics of her rapist even during the crime. She remained convinced even during a retrial, when the man who eventually turned out to be the real rapist stood accused, and Cotton was reconvicted.
It was DNA that eventually proved her wrong, after Cotton had spent eleven years in jail. Mortified by the error that had cost an innocent man so many years of his life, she arranged to meet him in a local church and was astounded by the grace with which he was able to forgive her. Since then, this blond, blond woman, the mother of her own family, and this extraordinary black man have become friends and colleagues, traveling together to forums where they hold forth on the seemingly easy mind-trap of mistaken identity. As shown in the television story, it's a remarkably touching friendship, and one that has managed to turn what was certainly an outrage into something of great value to our justice system.
No doubt there are countless others suffering in jail on the basis of evidence of good people whose eyes have literally deceived them. Our minds do so readily transform the illusion they create into concrete, indisputable reality; and, once done, the damage can be difficult, if not impossible to undo. So this turns out to be yet another cautionary tale, whose moral is to question all of our beliefs, perhaps especially those most deeply ingrained and most intractable; and never to mistake our inner conviction for external reality.