False Witness 

Eyewitnesses often mistakenly accuse innocent people of committing crimes, yet most police agencies refuse to implement reforms that would limit false identifications.

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On the afternoon of June 29, 1998, Trina Gomez and Maximilian Patlan were closing a branch of Fidelity Financial Services in Fullerton, California, when two men knocked on the door. They asked if they could make a payment, so Patlan let them into the bank. Once inside, one of the men punched Patlan in the face and ordered him to lie on the ground. The other man pulled out a shotgun and forced Gomez to collect all of the available cash. Minutes later, the two thieves walked out of Fidelity with more than $5,400 in cash and personal checks. The armed robbery and assault happened so quickly that Gomez and Patlan later had difficulty identifying the perpetrators.

A few months later, police arrested Bernard Teamer as the getaway driver in the robbery after a witness identified him. Police, however, had no leads on the two men who actually robbed the bank. So, they began to investigate all of Teamer's acquaintances and neighbors who fit the description that Gomez and Patlan had provided. The investigators eventually whittled the group down to eleven suspects.

Police used photos of these eleven people, along with so-called "filler" photos of 43 other men who were not believed to be involved in the crime, to assemble nine photo lineups for Gomez and Patlan to examine. The witnesses made nearly a dozen tentative identifications, but ultimately decided that Guy Miles, a 34-year-old black man, was one of the robbers.

The rest of the case against Miles, however, was flimsy. Six people provided alibis for him, swearing that when the robbery took place he was at his home in Las Vegas — 250 miles from Fullerton. There was no physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, linking him to the crime. And although Miles and Teamer had been members of the same street gang, they both said they had only met once — about ten years before the Fidelity robbery.

The photo lineups that police put together also contained several major flaws. Only a handful of the filler photos matched the robbers' general description, making it easier for Gomez and Patlan to select a suspect who looked like one of the men who robbed the bank. And the lineup test was administered by the investigating officer, who knew the identities of the eleven suspects, and thus could have influenced Gomez and Patlan to pick out at least one of them.

"It was almost as though [police] didn't care who [Gomez and Patlan] picked, just as long as they picked someone," said Alissa Bjerkhoel, an attorney with the California Innocence Project, a legal group that works to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted and is now working to free Miles.

Throughout the trial, Miles fervently maintained that he was innocent. But Gomez and Patlan's testimony ultimately convinced jurors of his guilt, and he was convicted of two counts of second-degree robbery and one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Because of his prior criminal record and California's harsh sentencing laws, Miles received a 75-year-to-life sentence.

"It all seemed surreal, like I was beside myself ... watching a bad scene in a movie," he recently wrote to me in a letter from San Quentin State Prison. "It was the most helpless feeling I ever experienced in my life."

In 2009, a decade after Miles was sentenced, the California Innocence Project, which had agreed to investigate his case, unveiled strong evidence that Gomez and Patlan had identified the wrong man. In fact, two other people confessed that they had robbed Fidelity, and Teamer eventually swore under oath that Miles was not one of his accomplices. Nonetheless, Gomez and Patlan remain steadfast in their belief that Miles is guilty, and so he remains behind bars for a crime that, in all likelihood, he did not commit.

Contrary to popular belief, people are often sent to prison based solely on eyewitness testimony, and forensic evidence is seldom used to solve most serious crimes. Unfortunately, numerous studies have shown that eyewitness memory can be unreliable. One in-depth study found that witnesses identify innocent people as being guilty in nearly two out of every ten cases. And of the 310 people who have been freed nationwide using DNA evidence, roughly 230 of the false convictions were based on incorrect eyewitness identifications, according to data collected by the Innocence Project.

While some witness mistakes can be attributed to how the brain stores and retrieves information, many false IDs are the product of poor police practices. "We have to treat eyewitness memory like a crime scene, which can be trampled through by the wrong practices," noted Maitreya Badami, a lead attorney with the Northern California Innocence Project.

For decades, experts have been pushing for reforms that would make IDs more accurate. The National Institute of Justice, a branch of the US Department of Justice, believes that so-called "double-blind sequential lineups" produce the most reliable identifications. Double blind means that the officer administering the lineups doesn't know the suspect's identity so he or she cannot influence witnesses. Sequential lineups involve police showing photos to a witness one at a time rather than six at a time, a procedure that allows a witness to compare each photo to his or her memory rather than to the other five photos.

According to the US Department of Justice, double-blind sequential lineups are twice as reliable as standard lineups. "It's a much more careful and forensically appropriate way to collect eyewitness evidence," explained Badami.

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