Fascinating thoughts about real-life crime and fictional crime. I do have some responses that have been knocking around in my head, but they’re mostly random, so we’ll see how it goes.
First, about real crime: I, too, find these examples of incorrect verdicts interesting. Among my acquaintance are a retired homicide detective, a district attorney, and a lawyer who once worked for the Innocence Project. Needless to say, these people have different takes on the topic. The homicide detective and the DA have both said to me, in effect, that by the time someone gets to trial, it is certain that they are guilty; it’s just a question of what evidence is allowed to be presented. And, of course, the defense will try to disqualify the most damaging evidence. They also believe that jurors suffer from the “CSI” effect–that they expect conclusive physical evidence, because that’s what they see on the crime shows. And, actually, I get why my friends feel that way–I mean, it’s their job, and they want to feel that they are doing the right thing.
Naturally my friend who worked on the Innocence Project sees things in a more nuanced fashion. Some of their cases are ones in which the client was convicted before modern innovations in DNA evidence, and the convictions relied heavily on eyewitnesses who, as you point out, are highly subject to error.
But turning to fiction, I believe, as you implied, that it is the certainty that makes these stories so appealing. Mysteries usually have such a sense of moral rightness about them: good guys win, bad guys get punished, and there’s little or no ambiguity in the ending.
When I was the manager at the Morgan Hill Library, there was a woman who came in every year to give us a donation for the library, with the express instruction that we were to spend it buying mysteries for the collection. It turned out that some years earlier, she had been going through a divorce, and felt that her life was completely out of control–nothing made sense. She said the only thing that kept her going was reading mystery novels. She would come to the library and check out stacks of them, and read them one after another, because they made sense to her–there was a certainty there, a pattern she couldn’t find in the rest of her life. Since she felt that mysteries essentially saved her life, she wanted to give back by making sure that others had plenty of mysteries to read.
I’ve actually read a couple of YA books lately that are mysteries, or at least have a mystery element to them, so perhaps that’s another post in a couple of days.