Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Innocent And Behind Bars

In 1998, a 31-year-old black man called Guy Miles was in violation of parole. He wasn’t allowed to leave California but left to Las Vegas to move in with his girlfriend.

A fact his parole officer didn’t know. So nothing seemed strange about his September meeting, until he was greeted by a police officer with a warrant for his arrest.

Two people who witnessed a bank robbery in Orange County had identified Miles as one of the two robbers.

The trial that followed was a sham. The prosecutor knew Miles used to be part of a gang and asked him to pull up his sleeve to show the jury his East Coast Crips tattoo.

It was a done deal.

Miles got sentenced to 75 years to life. Even though he was in a different state at the time of the robbery.

All across America, eyewitness testimonials can outweigh all sorts of other evidence.

Which would be fine if our memories worked like videotapes. But that’s not the case.

Seeing something does not commit it to memory.

One out of three times an eyewitness picks someone out of a lineup, they pick out an innocent filler. And of the first 250 DNA exonerations in the US, 190 involved mistaken eyewitness identifications.

Besides that our eyes don’t work as cameras, there are many things that can negatively impact how well we record a memory.

Once you introduce a gun, a suspect of a different race, and bad lighting, the odds of misidentification goes up dramatically.

Although the biggest culprit is probably police interference. Memory is easily lost and corrupted.

So when a key witness is picking out someone out of a lineup, subtle police suggestions have a large influence.

“Relax, ma’am. We have plenty of time,” seems like a prudent thing to tell a person. After all, misidentification of the suspect derails a case. As police officers build a case against an innocent person, the evidence left behind the real perpetrator starts to decay.

The issue is, police officers tend to tell the witness to “relax” if she’s considering an innocent filler. Someone who has nothing to do with the case and is simply filling a slot of the line up.

And on the flip side, if an eyewitness picks the alleged perp, police officers tend to say, “Good job, ma’am. You got the suspect.” And if he isn’t as vocal, the officer is likely to give his approval by a subtle smile.

How does that change things?

When given feedback, eye witnesses feel much more confident about their fallible memory. Just by that subtle push.

The biggest problem is that police officers interfere with the victim’s memory. A lot.

The two bank employees that picked Miles as the robber?

Both of them said that they didn’t have a clear recollection of the two men who held them up.

All they knew was that one robber was: a black and slender man. And the other was a: black and stocky man with a shaved head and facial hair.

Hardly distinguishable features.

And yet the two picked out Miles as the ‘stocky man’ out of 48 mugshots.

During the trials a few months later, one of the victims said about Miles, ““He looks different.” After which she craned her neck, “I’m sure that that’s him in the photo, but I’m not sure if that’s him over there.”

After the prosecutors called a brief recess and showed the victim Mile’s mugshot again, she returned to the witness stand and stated, without a shred of doubt, that Miles was the guy.

Was she remembering the person who attacked her, or the person from the mugshot she’s now seen dozens of times?

What all of this means is that we should treat eyewitness memory similar to how we handle trace evidence.

Think about how careful we are with a blood sample. How careful we are to preserve it. How we carefully track the chain of custody.

What do we do with memory? We let people go out into the world, talk with people, go back to the crime scene, and constantly ask them to turn over the events in their heads. 

What does that do? It corrupts the memory.

Yet judges across America treat eyewitness testimonies as reliable evidence. And use it to put innocent men like Miles behind bars, despite contradictory evidence.

In 2007, the real perpetrators of the ‘97 robbery were found. Both men signed confessions.

In 2013, Miles got another hearing to appeal his sentence. His lawyers presented the confessions, Mile’s Las Vegas alibi, and scientific studies that prove the fallibility of eyewitness testimonies.

Because the two robbery victims didn’t take back their testimonies, the judge saw no reason to change Mile’s sentence, while also acknowledging that he “could in fact be innocent.”

Luckily, the decision wasn’t the judge’s to make, but the California Court of Appeal.

On January 19, 2017, the court reversed Mile’s conviction. But he was also instantly threatened with a reprosecution from the district attorney—the state doesn’t like to be wrong.

So Miles accepted a plea deal and pleaded guilty to a bogus offense and was freed hours later.

Miles served 18 years and will likely never get a penny for his lost time.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach