Three men, one armed with a shotgun, broke into a Tampa home and robbed five people on July 8, 1981. The men forced two of the victims — a 38-year-old woman and a 12-year-old girl — into a getaway car and drove to a dark, wooded area, where the man with the shotgun raped them.
Police showed the victims a photo of Alan Crotzer, who had been convicted of a prior robbery, along with photos of other potential suspects. Four of the five didn’t identify him as the man with the shotgun, but they changed their minds after hearing one of the women did. Crotzer spent 24 years in prison before he was exonerated through DNA evidence in 2006.
With DNA evidence clearing an increasing number of inmates convicted through eyewitness identifications, law enforcement agencies across the country are changing how they have witnesses pick out suspects from photo lineups.
In New Jersey, the attorney general mandated reforms. In Oregon, the state supreme court did, and legislators passed laws in Connecticut, Texas and North Carolina requiring changes in photo lineup procedures, according to Rebecca Brown, the director of state policy reform for the Innocence Project, whose work freed Crotzer.
There is no such statewide edict in Florida, so law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have had to decide what, if anything, they should do on their own. In the Sixth Judicial Circuit, which covers Pinellas and Pasco counties, agencies are making changes before they are told to do so.
The sheriff’s offices and various police departments were told by State Attorney Bernie McCabe to make a basic change to their procedures as of Jan. 1: Stop showing witnesses and crime victims six photographs at the same time, which investigators had been doing for years. Now, investigators show the photographs one at a time, or sequentially.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and the Tampa Police Department started doing that two years ago.
“We won’t accept anything but sequential lineups,” said Doyle Jourdan, chief investigator at the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, which decides whether to prosecute cases investigated by law enforcement agencies. “They have to be in compliance.”
A witness presented with six photographs at the same time, sometimes called a six-pack, will tend to choose the person who looks most like the suspect – though that might not actually be a photo of the suspect, said Clearwater police Lt. David Dalton, who worked on the new policy.
When shown one photograph at a time, though, that eyewitness can compare the image before him with his recollection of the person he saw and decide see if they are one and the same.
A study by the American Judicature Society showed that, with sequential lineups, witnesses were 50 percent less likely to identify the wrong person, according to Brown, of the Innocence Project.
Every major law enforcement agency in Pinellas County did as McCabe instructed, some as long as two years ago, except the St. Petersburg Police Department, which rushed through its policy change last week only after the Tribune began inquiring about it.
Wednesday, police spokesman Mike Puetz forwarded the Tribune a policy that hadn’t been updated since July 2010 and didn’t include the basic change requested by McCabe.
The following day, Assistant Police Chief David DeKay told the Tribune the police department was “struggling” with the change.
“We’ve always shown them simultaneously,” he said.
Sequential photo lineups would mean investigators would “have to cut” up an individual sheet with six photographs on it to produce a sequence, DeKay said.
Detectives had been conducting sequential lineups without an official policy in place, but patrol officers had yet to do so, DeKay said. But he said he had a new policy almost written and that it would be finished in a matter of weeks. Then, on Friday, police spokesman Bill Proffitt forwarded the Tribune a copy of the new policy with the changes requested by McCabe.
The sequential lineup was only one aspect of a model policy proposed by the Pinellas Police Standards Training Council, a group that coordinates policies among agencies and whose members include many top police administrators, along with McCabe. On the photo lineup issue, DeKay was St. Petersburg’s point man on the council.
Many agencies are also trying to make sure the detective or investigator overseeing a lineup is not connected to the case. That way, the investigator can’t subconsciously signal through body language which photograph is the suspect.
Also, when a patrol officer takes a victim or witness somewhere to identify a suspect who’s in custody, the suspect should not be handcuffed, sitting in a patrol car or wearing a jail inmate’s uniform, according to the model policy.
In Florida, a bill was proposed in 2011 requiring changes in photo lineup procedures, but it failed, said Seth Miller, executive director of Innocence Project of Florida.
“What you have in Florida is a hodgepodge of different methods of doing identification procedures,” he said.
“Bernie McCabe should be applauded for requiring the folks in his jurisdiction to do this,” Miller said. “Other elected state attorneys in the state of Florida should follow his lead.”