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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Bailey did not testify at the evidentiary hearing, but he wrote and signed a sworn declaration admitting to the crime and absolving Miles of any involvement in it. Bailey stated that he thought long and hard about coming forward, and ultimately agreed to because he "never wanted what happened to Mr. Miles to happen to anyone else."

California State University Los Angeles professor Mitchell Eisen, an expert on memory and lineup procedures, also testified that the witnesses' identifications — which were the only pieces of evidence linking Miles to the crime — were deeply flawed. For starters, one of the witnesses, Maximilian Patlan, initially told investigators that he wouldn't be able to recognize the man he described to police as the "stocky" robber. But then he later identified Miles in the courtroom as that robber. The other witness, Trina Gomez, had identified Miles in the photo lineup, but was unable to identify him in the courtroom during the original trial. "I'm sure that that's him in the photo, but I'm not sure if that's him over there," she said, while standing at the counsel table and scrutinizing Miles from various vantage points. "He looks different."

However, after Gomez spoke with a prosecutor during a courtroom recess, she returned to the witness stand and pointed her finger at Miles saying, "That's him."

"Police and prosecutors could have reliably ruled me out as a suspect through proper handling [of the case]," Miles wrote in a letter to me from prison. "But their actions demonstrated a bias to win."

Aside from the flawed identification process, numerous psychological factors also could have influenced Gomez and Patlan's memories. The use of a gun in a crime can cause a perception problem called "weapons focus," in which the witness concentrates on the weapon rather than the perpetrator. Two guns were used in the Fidelity robbery.

Studies have also shown that witnesses have a harder time distinguishing people across racial lines. According to data collected by the Innocence Project, about 40 percent of overturned convictions have involved cross-race identifications. In the Miles case, both Gomez and Patlan made cross-race identifications: He is black and they are not.

Yet despite the compelling evidence of innocence, Judge Frank Fasel denied Miles' habeas petition. Judge Fasel wrote that the evidence presented did not "undermine the prosecution." He also cast doubt on Steward, Bailey, and Teamer's declarations because of their previous criminal histories and gang ties.

It should be noted that Judge Fasel, who also presided over Miles' original criminal trial, has a surprisingly high reversal rate. While the average judge in California sees about 5 percent of his or her convictions overturned, Fasel has had roughly 15 percent of his convictions overturned by appellate courts, Bjerkhoel said. In other words, he's three times more likely to make a reversible courtroom mistake than other judges.

Although neither Gomez nor Patlan testified at the evidentiary hearing, they both continue to stand by their identification of Miles as one of the bank robbers, and their testimony is keeping him behind bars. As Loftus wrote in her 1979 book Eyewitness Testimony, "[T]there is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says, 'That's the one!'"

In a last-ditch effort to free Miles, the CIP asked Governor Jerry Brown to grant him and eleven other inmates clemency. In recent decades, governors have been reluctant to pardon prisoners. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis, and Pete Wilson pardoned a combined 28 inmates during their two decades in office. By contrast, Brown pardoned more than four hundred people during his first stint as governor in the 1970s and the early '80s. "Brown is interested in clemency — he really does want to find the good cases so that he can grant it," said Bjerkhoel.

To draw attention to his case, Miles' attorneys walked 712 miles, from San Diego to Sacramento, where they met with the governor's staff. "We have been banging our heads against the wall for more then a decade, and we're finally fed up with how the justice system works," said CIP attorney Brooks, who's the lead attorney representing Miles. "It's time to try something different .... If we can get the governor's attention, maybe we can fix this."

The attorneys walked for 55 days, and along the way they spoke to people about other potentially innocent men and women still languishing in California prisons. "I can assure you I would not walk 712 miles for Miles if I did not know he was 100 percent innocent of this crime," said Bjerkhoel. 

The group arrived in Sacramento at the end of May, and presented their case for clemency. Top-level officials in the Brown administration were receptive to their appeal. However, California Department of Justice officials are currently working through a backlog of hundreds of clemency petitions, so it could be some time before they review Miles' case.

Because of the devastating impacts of inaccurate eyewitness identifications, many politicians and academics are trying to educate the public about best-practice lineup procedures. Earlier this year, Assemblyman Ammiano introduced AB 604, which would require courts to educate jurors about the problems inherent in standard lineups. "I would love to see double-blind sequential ID procedures adopted throughout California," Ammiano wrote in an email to me. "But resistance to change is difficult to overcome. So, we have to approach the changes slowly and carefully."


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