innocence blog

A Web log for the Innocence Institute of Point Park University

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Tucson PD panel to scrutinize procedures of photo lineups

This article appeared in the Arizona Daily Star :

TPD panel to scrutinize procedures of photo lineups
Eyewitness IDs susceptible to suggestion, critics say

By Alexis Huicochea and Kim Smith

In any criminal investigation, finding a witness who can identify a suspect by looking at a photo lineup is like hitting the jackpot.

Or is it?

The traditional photo lineup is a tool that many law enforcement agencies have used for decades, but in recent years, with all of the advances in DNA testing, the effectiveness of traditional photo lineups has come under fire.

The Tucson Police Department has formed the Eyewitness Identification Project Advisory Committee to look at other methods of conducting photo lineups to ensure that an innocent person doesn't get sent to prison, said Lt. John Stamatopoulos.

The committee consists of UA researchers, UA College of Law representatives, prosecutors and defense attorneys, he said.

One reason, he said, is that out of the first 40 convictions overturned nationally through the work of the Innocence Project, 36 were based on eyewitness testimony.

The Innocence Project is a nonprofit legal group that only handles cases in which post-conviction DNA testing of evidence can yield conclusive proof of innocence, according to its Web site.
Tucson police couldn't point to any local cases in which DNA evidence later led to the overturning of a conviction based on eyewitness testimony, but they want to study the lineup issue.

"The Tucson Police Department is progressive. We are always looking for ways to better ourselves, so we hope to make ourselves available for scientific pilot studies to determine what really is the best method," Stamatopoulos said.

In a traditional photo lineup, the detective working a case will take a photo of a suspect and gather five photos of people similar in appearance to show to a witness or victim with the hope that they will select the right person.

However, mistaken identifications are the No. 1 cause of wrongful convictions, so anything that can improve the reliability of the identification process would be welcome, said defense attorney Rick Lougee.

"An officer knows what they want, and they can unwittingly suggest (a suspect), even the most honest cop," Lougee said. "It can be their tone of voice or their inflection, and the witness is looking for cues."

People naturally want to be helpful, Lougee said.

The department is fully aware of the concerns that Lougee raises and that is one of the reasons, Stamatopoulos said, that it is considering a double-blind method in which someone not associated with the case would administer the lineup.

Defense attorney Dan Cooper says one of his clients was arrested for first-degree murder last year because police manipulated a witness during a series of photo lineups. The veteran attorney has asked Judge Richard Fields of Pima County Superior Court to throw out the identification; the matter is pending.

According to authorities, Tony Cornejo's lifeless body was found in Tucson several hours after he and two other men were severely beaten at a Phoenix tire shop by two men.

One of the victims, Juan Ceniceros-Lopez, told police that one of the men shown in a photo lineup looked a little like the tall man who beat him. The man was not Cooper's client, Dominique Martinez.

Three months later, police showed Ceniceros-Lopez another lineup with Martinez in it. Cooper said that although lineups are supposed to include pictures of similar-looking people, the other men in the lineup looked vastly different from Martinez. One had a shaved head, two were obese and another was dark-complected when the attacker was light-skinned.

Ceniceros-Lopez again said one of the men looked a little bit like the attacker, but said he was too old. Again, the man was not Martinez.

According to Cooper, the detectives then asked Ceniceros-Lopez to focus in on Martinez, asking him if he would look like the tall attacker if his head was shaved, if his hair was shorter, if his hair was longer.

Ceniceros-Lopez eventually said Martinez looked "similar" to his attacker.
By the time Ceniceros-Lopez was asked to participate in a live lineup, he'd seen Martinez's picture twice and no one else from the photo lineups was included, Cooper said.

Ceniceros-Lopez picked out Martinez and again said he looked "similar" to his attacker.

Again and again the police would simply not accept Ceniceros-Lopez's inability to positively identify his attacker, Cooper said in his court motion.

"They did precisely what years of cases have precluded as technique and continued to prod and lead the witness until they receive a partial identification," Cooper said. "A more flawed and unfair eyewitness confrontation process could not be imagined."

● To contact reporters: Alexis Huicochea, 629-9412 or; Kim Smith, 573-4241 or


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