Season 7, Episode 13 (I, Witness)
This week’s episode turned the usual format upside-down. Instead of a murder taking place offscreen and our lead characters trying to piece together what took place, we get a murder that happens onscreen (albeit obscured) in front of our main character. Castle is thus forced to spend the better half of the episode trying to convince Beckett, the NYPD, and the local police of what he saw. Most importantly, he has to convince himself, and he ends up having to review his hypothesis several times until he and Beckett came up with the correct scenario and murderer. What unfolds is a Hitchcockian tale of intrigue and bait-and-switch that makes the audience keep guessing as much as Castle – after all, we are shown what we think is the murder as well. Unlike for Castle, who witnesses the murder of his client and former schoolmate, the guessing game is much more pleasant for us.
The mind games, however, are sadly very real. Eyewitnesses are easily fooled or disbelieved. The brain fills in details. Little things like heightened emotion, shock, and odd circumstances can render a person very unsure of him- or herself. Their doubt is exactly what defense lawyers, judges, juries, the police, and the court of public opinion use to twist their words and memories to let a murderer go free. Castle is assumed to be in his right mind by the audience, but if a witness happens to be under the effects of mind-altering substances, medications, stress, or mental illness, their credibility is even further doubted. We are sympathetic to Castle, as is Beckett, but even the local police in the suburb where the murder occurred are not convinced of his story. If he were not a wealthy white male, depending on his location, his story might have been doubted or discounted altogether. Even still, he was asked multiple times if he was sure that he saw what he thought he had seen. The implication was clear: had he been drinking? Was he overtired? Had he overheard a television instead?
Witnessing a murder, or any other traumatic event, is not objective. There are reasons that people want to have cameras on cops, why security-camera footage is highly sought after, and why people want to see evidence of the supernatural on film. These things are considered objective, since the camera cannot remember something incorrectly. Sure, anything out of the camera’s frame of reference is obscured, but whatever takes place in front of it will be recorded as plain as day. Humans, on the other hand, remember events out of order, remember minor details disproportionately, forget major details, insist that certain things took place that are difficult to verify (such as insisting that they heard screams), and focus on their emotions. Castle acted stupidly in this episode – he chased after his friend after hearing her scream, even after seeing her supposedly dead body, and failed to call the police (or his wife!). He chased an unknown assailant into the dark and then was attacked. Naturally, his mind filled in the blanks and he initially assumed that the attacker was his client’s husband. Really, all he had to go on was that the attacker was a tall man who was relatively fit and most likely white. However, his mind reacted entirely as expected. Humans don’t like empty spaces, so we fill them in to make complete narratives in our minds.
On the other hand, everything that Castle saw actually took place, albeit not exactly as his mind had interpreted it. This is key when dealing with eyewitness accounts. If a witness has no or little reason to lie, it is very likely that they are telling the truth as they saw it. In order for them to see it, something did have to actually happen. Even if a person is mentally unstable and interpreted two raccoons fighting in a dumpster as someone being murdered, they did see something.
History is much the same. Eyewitness accounts, while heavily biased and open to interpretation, are real. People do remember. They know what they saw. Deception, however, is also very real, and very old. Yet just because an eyewitness was deceived doesn’t mean that everything they saw was a lie. Even in lies, there is truth.