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
- ABC News (Australia). "'No Help' for Australian Caught Up in Dubai Hit." March 3, 2010. (May 8, 2016) http://www.abc.net.au/news/2010-02-27/no-help-for-australian-caught-up-in-dubai-hit/344994
- Aldhous, Peter. "Bone Marrow Donors Risk DNA Identity Mix-up." New Scientist. Oct. 27, 2005. (May 10, 2016) https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg18825234-600-bone-marrow-donors-risk-dna-identity-mix-up/
- BBC. "Fears Over Transplant DNA Mix-ups." Oct. 27, 2005. (May 10, 2016) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4378044.stm
- Cathcart, Brian. "The Strange Case of Adolf Beck." The Independent (UK). Oct. 16, 2004. (May 4, 2016) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/the-strange-case-of-adolf-beck-535209.html
- Engeler, Amy. "The Identity Theft You Haven't Heard of...Yet." WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine. (May 9, 2016) http://www.webmd.com/health-insurance/id-theft-you-havent-heard-yet
- Felch, Jason and Maura Dolan. "FBI Resists Scrutiny of 'Matches.'" Los Angeles Times. July 20, 2008. (May 10, 2016) http://articles.latimes.com/2008/jul/20/local/me-dna20
- Geddes, Linda. "DNA Super-network Increases Risk of Mix-ups." New Scientist. Aug. 31, 2011. (May 10, 2016) https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128285-500-dna-super-network-increases-risk-of-mix-ups
- Herald Sun (Australia). "Meet Mum-to-be 'Assassin' Nicole McCabe." Feb. 26, 2010. (May 8, 2016) http://www.heraldsun.com.au/archive/news/meet-australian-woman-nicole-mccabe-set-up-in-spy-scandal/story-e6frf7l6-1225834556008
- Himmelreich, Claudia. "Despite DNA Evidence, Twins Charged in Heist Go Free." Time. March 23, 2009. (May 10, 2016) http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1887111,00.html
- Iowa Department of Public Safety. "The Identification of the 'West Brothers.'" Fingerprint Card & Final Disposition Report Procedures Manual: Section 2. (May 15, 2016) http://www.dps.state.ia.us/DCI/supportoperations/Information/records/fingerprint_procedures_manual_section_2.pdf
- Johnson, Caitlin. "Protect Against Medical ID Theft." CBS. Oct. 9, 2006. (May 9, 2016) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/protect-against-medical-id-theft/
- Lewis, Roger. "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers." Hal Leonard Corporation. 1997.
- Lundy, Sarah and April Hunt. "Fingerprints Foil His Attempt to Assume Her Identity in Jail." Orlando Sentinel. July 21, 2007. (May 9, 2016) http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2007-07-21/news/TRANSVESTITE21_1_ossenfort-richard-phillips-brittany
- Myers, Zach. "Taylor University Remembers Lives Lost, Case of Mistaken Identity on 10-Year Anniversary of Crash." Fox 59 News. April 25, 2016. (May 8, 2016) http://fox59.com/2016/04/25/taylor-university-marks-10-year-anniversary-of-crash-identity-mistake/
- New Scientist. "Lingering Kiss: DNA Persists in the Mouth After Smooch." Jan. 23, 2013. (May 10, 2016) https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21729014.900-lingering-kiss-dna-persists-in-the-mouth-after-smooch
- Olsen, Robert D. "A Fingerprint Fable: The Will and William West Case." Identification News. Vol. 37, No. 11. 1987. (May 15, 2016) http://www.mcclurgscience.com/uploads/2/6/5/7/26572932/a_fingerprint_fable.pdf
- Osher, Christopher N. "Wrongfully Jailed: Records Detail More Than 500 Mistaken-identity Arrests in Denver in Seven Years." The Denver Post. Jan. 8, 2012. (May 14, 2016) http://www.denverpost.com/ci_19697991
- Palmer, Brian. "Can Identical Twins Get Away With Murder?" Slate. Aug. 23, 2012. (May 10, 2016) http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/08/true_crime_with_twins_can_identical_twins_get_away_with_murder_.html
- Porter, Chester. "The Conviction of the Innocent: How the Law Can Let Us Down." Random House. 2007.
- Sikov, Ed. "Mr. Strangelove: A Biography of Peter Sellers." Hachette. 2003.
- Swickard, Joe et al. "Mistaken Identities: Confusion of Horrific Accident Resulted in Wrong Tag." USA Today. June 3, 2006. (May 8, 2016) http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2006-06-04-mistakenID_x.htm
- The Sydney Morning Herald. "The Adolph Beck Case." Nov. 29, 1904. (May 4, 2016) http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/14645349
- Trimm, Harold H. "Forensics the Easy Way." Barron's Educational Series. 2005.
- WTHR. "Crash Victims' Identities Mixed Up." (May 8, 2016) http://www.wthr.com/story/4970548/crash-victims-identities-mixed-up
Hundreds of explorers tried to locate the Northwest Passage. Many of those attempts ended badly. HowStuffWorks looks at five.