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Innocence Commission probes eyewitness mistakes in wrongful convictions

TAMPA — In a courtroom almost three decades ago, five victims identified Alan Crotzer as the man they saw rob them and rape a woman and a girl.

They were wrong.

But a jury believed them. He served 24 years in prison before DNA evidence set him free.

The lesson: Eyewitnesses make mistakes.

In Florida, 12 defendants have been exonerated by DNA. Nationally, the number is 261. In three-quarters of the wrongful convictions, misidentification played a role.

On Monday, a commission created by the Florida Supreme Court assembled in Tampa to dissect the problem. The Innocence Commission, made up of lawyers, legislators and judges, will spend two years tackling issues surrounding wrongful conviction and make recommendations that could become law.

The problem with eyewitness identification comes down to this, said Iowa State University psychology professor Gary Wells: Memory, like physical evidence, can be tainted.

One way that happens is through the standard police lineup. Traditionally, a witness will look at half a dozen mug shots at the same time and try to identify a suspect. People tend to pick the person who most resembles the culprit, Wells said, even if the actual criminal isn't depicted.

He said witnesses should get just one photo at a time. Studies show that forces people to dig deeper into their memories.

People are also influenced by cues they get from those showing the photos, he said. Detectives may unknowingly give nonverbal cues. Or they'll say things.

For example, "Now, take your time" might mean the witness is looking at the wrong face.

In one case, a witness said detectives applauded when she picked their suspect. That kind of affirmation can create an inflated sense of certainty in the mind of a witness, who will take it to trial.

The solution? Don't let detectives conduct the lineup, Wells said. Give the photos to someone who doesn't know which depicts the suspect.

Police departments across the country have started to use some of the techniques Wells mentioned. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office uses them both.

Cpl. Stephen Decatur said detectives give him photo lineups and he presents them one by one to witnesses without knowing which they're expected to choose.

Wells said Boston's conviction rate increased after the changes, and that more defendants in New Jersey are pleading guilty.

But there are critics.

Some at smaller police departments say they don't have the manpower to get an unrelated officer to conduct the lineup, much less testify about it in various stages of the legal case.

Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney for the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, said he is troubled by what he sees as an unfair assumption.

"It suggests that your law enforcement is dishonest. And I'm sorry, but I'm not ready to accept that," he said. "I'm not saying mistakes don't happen, because they do. But I'm not ready to believe your cops are all crooked."

In most Tampa Bay police jurisdictions, case detectives with knowledge of the suspect are the ones to show lineups. Many department policies instruct them on what they can and can't say and do to avoid swaying witnesses.

Some show photos one at a time, including the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, St. Petersburg police and Tampa police.

"We are always looking for ways to improve our process and stay on the cutting edge of law enforcement," said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy.

The Innocence Commission will have a January meeting in Jacksonville.

Times staff writers Ron Matus and Drew Harwell contributed to this report.

Innocence Commission probes eyewitness mistakes in wrongful convictions 11/22/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 23, 2010 5:22pm]
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