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Local Column

Perfect memory not needed for justice

Carl Russell, of Sandwich, listens to testimony Wednesday during his trial at the DeKalb County Courthouse. Russell was convicted of attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of Eric Peterson of DeKalb.
Carl Russell, of Sandwich, listens to testimony Wednesday during his trial at the DeKalb County Courthouse. Russell was convicted of attempted first-degree murder in the shooting of Eric Peterson of DeKalb.

The truth can be something that’s hard to get at, which is kind of interesting because it should be pretty obvious. Any past event, large or small, important or trivial, unfolded in a certain way and no other.

In the attempted murder trial of Carl Russell this week, seven people testified about the moment July 2, 2017, when Russell shot Eric Peterson. All were in the immediate area of the shooting. Their proximity to the scene varied: Peterson’s and witnesses’ testimony put him about 2 to 4 feet away from Russell at the time. Jason Weiss, who was cleaning fireworks off of his driveway, figured he was about 80 yards away.

Although each person witnessed the same event, they all saw it differently. People whose jobs it is to unearth the narrative of a past event – detectives, reporters, lawyers, historians – can tell you how people often have imperfect memories. People can recall the same occurrence differently for a whole host of reasons, and not necessarily be wrong.

Researchers from Emory University published a study in 1992 about 44 peoples’ recollections of the Challenger explosion, which occurred in 1986. People around the globe, including many children watching a science teacher along for the ride on the space shuttle that day, watched as the shuttle exploded moments after liftoff and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.

Researchers conducted a first round of interviews in 1988, asking people where they were when they first heard about the tragedy, whether they saw it live or heard it on the radio later.

When researchers interviewed those same people again in 1989, the memories of every one of the 44 people had changed.

In Russell’s trial this week, defense attorney Brian Wright noted each time a witness on the stand told a story that differed from what they told police the night of the shooting. Some witnesses forgot parts of the event entirely. Others’ memories of their location at the time or what they heard had changed. One witness told police that night about other cars arriving at the house in the 1100 block of Lilian Lane that he couldn’t recall on the stand.

Russell, 45, had a different version of events, one that involved four cars pulling up into the driveway with 20 gang members inside, who were coming to beat him up and break into his house. He never took the stand at his trial – but that was what he told police, court records show.

There is one true, exact version of events for what happened when Russell shot Peterson on early July 2, 2017, and we’ll probably never know it. But even though no one could agree on the precise facts – where people stood, who said what, what happened in what order – it didn’t stop 12 jurors from reaching a verdict: Russell pulled the trigger and intended to kill Peterson.

We live in a world that appears to have certain and defined boundaries and actions, but we experience it all imperfectly, recall it imprecisely and try to manage it exactly.

Russell’s sentencing hearing is Aug. 2. He faces 31 years to life in prison.

Peterson lost his right eye in the shooting. He lost part of his skull, and his memories from before the shooting and after are hazy at best and missing completely at worst. Now paralyzed on his left side, he uses a motorized wheelchair.

While we may never know the exact story of that shooting, we knew enough. We also know for sure the present outcome.

Neither man will again enjoy the freedom he had before the shooting.

• Kevin Solari is managing editor of the Daily Chronicle. Reach him at 815-756-4841 ext. 2221, or email ksolari@shawmedia.com

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