On a late spring day in 2006, a deputy coroner and a chaplain drove to a Michigan home to deliver the opposite sort of news that these trips usually entailed: They were going to tell the mother and father of Whitney Cerak that their daughter was alive. It was bound to be a bit of a shock. They thought they had buried her weeks earlier [sources: Myers, WTHR].
On April 26, 2006, a semi-truck driver had fallen asleep at the wheel, causing his truck to cross a median and crash into a Taylor University van containing nine people. One of the worst crashes in local memory, it killed five and hurled bodies and belongings more than 50 feet from the impact site. In the rush to save lives, a first responder had loaded Cerak into the evac chopper along with the ID of the deceased Laura Van Ryn — who closely resembled Cerak in hair color, bone structure and build [sources: Myers, WTHR].
In the weeks that followed, while Cerak slowly recovered from a closed head injury, 1,400 people, including members of her family, friends and classmates mourned her loss and attended her funeral, while Van Ryn's loved ones waited for the person they thought was their daughter to recover. Eventually, as the patient's behavioral inconsistencies mounted, they could no longer ignore their suspicions. Finally, when a therapist asked her to write her name, the truth was there in black and white: "Whitney" [sources: Myers, WTHR].
Author's Note: 10 Terrible Cases of Mistaken Identity
"The innocent have nothing to fear," eh? After researching this piece, I'm not so sure. Granted, most of these extreme examples involved flukes, but I turned up scores of other examples just like them. By the way, research shows that people are terrible eyewitnesses; it also reveals that juries are inordinately swayed by evidence that sounds like it came out of a CSI episode. So I think the lesson here is that due process, appeals and other legal protections are something that we want to keep around.
Or is it that, alibi-wise, jail is the safest place to be?
More Great Links
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The 100-year anniversary of the end of World War I offers up a second chance to learn from our mistakes. HowStuffWorks looks at what we need to know.