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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This mental process is innocuous when the true perpetrator is in the lineup. But if he or she isn't in the lineup, the witness sometimes picks whoever looks the most like the perpetrator.

When witnesses view photos one at a time, scientists believe it sparks something called "absolute judgment," in which the witness weighs each photo against his or her own memory of the crime. An extensive 2006 field study conducted in Greensboro, North Carolina by the American Judicature Society found that witnesses identified innocent people as being guilty 18.1 percent of the time when shown photo arrays in standard six-packs. In sequential photo lineups, the false ID rate was 12.2 percent.

In recent years, Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have started using double-blind sequential lineups. Some cities such, as Dallas, Seattle, and Denver, have also adopted the procedure. However, as of 2010, only 8 percent of California's police departments used double-blind sequential lineups, most of which were in the Bay Area.

In 2011, San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Tom Ammiano introduced AB 308, which would have made double-blind sequential lineups mandatory throughout the state. The bill was based on recommendations from the National Institute of Justice and the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice and was supported by a consortium of defense attorneys, civil liberties groups, and social scientists. But the legislation died in the state senate.

Law enforcement groups played a key role in sinking AB 308, arguing that some witnesses have trouble identifying any suspects when viewing double-blind sequential lineups, thereby allowing perpetrators to avoid justice.

In recent years, a handful of social scientists have also begun to question the benefits of double-blind sequential lineups. Relatively new research by Steven Clark, a professor of psychology at UC Riverside, found that, under some conditions, double-blind sequential lineups can lead to far fewer correct IDs. "So the question is: How do we evaluate the tradeoff?" Clark said. "How many correct IDs are we willing to lose in order to protect the innocent?"

Most criminal justice experts, however, continue to support double-blind sequential lineups, even though it might reduce the total number of positive identifications. "We have often decided as a society [that] it is a far worse error to convict an innocent person than to let a guilty one go free," noted UC Irvine professor Loftus.

Every year, the California Innocence Project (CIP) receives between 1,500 and 2,000 letters from inmates who claim they've been wrongfully imprisoned. Due to the group's shoestring budget and largely volunteer staff, the CIP can only investigate a very small percentage of these cases. "In terms of innocence, we're more cynical than prosecutors a lot of days. We have to be, we can only take so many cases," explained Justin Brooks, a professor at the California Western School of Law and the project director of the CIP.

In 2002, after being sentenced to 75 years to life in prison, Guy Miles wrote a letter to the Innocence Project asking for help. Among the thousands of queries that the group received that year, Miles' plea stood out. "It's relatively rare that our office comes across a true case of wrongful conviction," said Bjerkhoel. "It's hard to get a better innocence case than Miles'."

After a seven-year investigation, the CIP uncovered convincing evidence that Miles had been wrongly convicted. The group found Jason Steward and Harold Bailey, who then both confessed that they had robbed Fidelity Financial Services alongside Bernard Teamer, who had previously been convicted as the getaway driver in the crime. All three men said Miles had nothing to do with the heist.

Initially, Steward didn't want to discuss the robbery with CIP attorneys. He had recently been released from prison, and he thought that he could be recommitted if he admitted to the crime. But he eventually agreed to testify on Miles' behalf. No one promised him anything in return. In fact, his testimony only could have hurt him. "Regardless of the consequences, he came forward because he genuinely felt the need to correct the situation. He knew the truth, he knew who was involved, and he knew Miles was not one of the robbers," the CIP attorneys wrote in their petition to overrule Miles' conviction. In his declaration, Bailey wrote, "[I]t was mind boggling knowing that [Miles] had so much time for something he did not do."

In 2010, the CIP filed a Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus in Orange County Superior Court alleging that the new evidence undermined Miles' conviction. An evidentiary hearing commenced in May 2011, at which Steward gave a detailed description of the robbery: He knew which employee opened the door; the fake name that the robbers had used; and the amount of money that they took from Fidelity. He also drew a precise map of the Fidelity branch.

Teamer also testified that Miles wasn't involved in the robbery. He had initially kept quiet about the crime to avoid being labeled a "snitch," but he had turned his life around after being released from prison, and he decided that it was best to come clean. He told CIP attorneys that he hoped his testimony would rectify the damage he had caused and that one day Miles would forgive him "for his actions and his silence," according to court documents.


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