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LAPD reluctant to change its handling of photo lineups

Two detectives came under scrutiny for their conduct with a witness to a slaying. A growing number of agencies have embraced reforms to prevent investigator-tainted IDs.

August 24, 2012|By Jack Leonard and Joel Rubin, Los Angeles Times
  • LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said detectives assigned to a case have the best chance of building a rapport with their witnesses and recognizing if a fearful or hostile witness is holding back information. "If you decide you want to put your thumb on the scale of justice, you can do it either way," Beck told The Times.
LAPD Chief Charlie Beck said detectives assigned to a case have the best… (Los Angeles Times )

The veteran LAPD detectives showed the witness to a slaying an array of six mug shots — the suspect in the fourth slot.

The witness, an off-duty security guard, said the third photo resembled the killer. Det. John Zambos encouraged her to keep looking.

She indicated two more photos — the fourth and sixth.

"I kept seeing you go to four.... And you kept returning to four," Zambos said, according to a transcript reviewed by The Times. "Was [there] a reason why you kept comparing everybody to No. 4?"

The detectives then showed the witness a separate photo of the man in the fourth position. Eventually, she selected him as the killer.

The LAPD detectives' conduct, which emerged during a murder trial, is one of several cases across the country that has helped prompt a rethinking of the age-old methods of police interviews. As a result, a growing number of law enforcement agencies are abandoning the practice of allowing detectives who know the identity of a suspect to conduct photo lineups.

The change, proponents say, is needed to guard against influencing witnesses with subtle, unintentional comments and gestures — or more heavy-handed techniques.

Police in Denver and Boston have adopted the new lineup practices. Last month, Virginia recommended that its law enforcement agencies use the method, which is also required or recommended in New Jersey, Connecticut, North Carolina, Texas and other states.

David Angel, head of the Santa Clara County district attorney's conviction integrity unit, said the change can strengthen prosecutions. "If you can tell juries that you have done everything you can to minimize mistakes, it is only going to help your case," said Angel, whose department spearheaded similar reforms a decade ago.

But in most police agencies, including Los Angeles, case investigators continue to handle lineups. In California, police and prosecutors have opposed uniform guidelines on conducting eyewitness identifications, arguing that claims of police influence are exaggerated.

Facing questions from the city's Police Commission last year, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck said there was no guarantee that the new method was any better — and it might be worse.

Detectives assigned to a case, Beck said, have the best chance of building a rapport with their witnesses and recognizing if a fearful or hostile witness is holding back information.

"If you decide you want to put your thumb on the scale of justice, you can do it either way," Beck told The Times. "If you don't adhere to the rules, either process is flawed. It's more important to do them correctly than it is which process you use."

The push for reforms stems from a broader effort in law enforcement to improve what is an unreliable process under any circumstances.

False identifications are the leading reason for wrongful convictions, and studies show that eyewitnesses select the wrong person about a fifth of the time.

In a highly publicized case last year, Los Angeles police admitted they wrongly accused a man of beating a baseball fan outside Dodger Stadium after multiple witnesses identified him in lineups as the attacker.

Police photo lineups are often conducted behind closed doors without being recorded, but Zambos and his partner, Det. Leo Kerchenske, did record theirs.

The Times reviewed several slaying cases handled by Zambos and Kerchenske after the LAPD investigated them for misconduct involving a photo lineup.

Transcripts from several eyewitness interviews recorded by the detectives and other records show the investigators engaging in conduct that ranged from seemingly innocuous verbal cues to erasing a recording of a witness making an identification.

The Times asked several identification experts to review a transcript of the detectives' photo lineup with the security guard who had witnessed the slaying and selected the photograph in the fourth slot.

Roy Malpass, a recently retired psychology and criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, described it as "the most amazing example of bias I've ever read."

Malpass criticized the detectives for steering the witness away from her initial choice and showing her a different photo of the suspect, a move that psychologists say singles out one person as the suspect and can distort a witness' memory.

Former LAPD Deputy Chief David Doan, who oversaw the department's detectives until his retirement in November, agreed the detectives erred in showing the second photo. "That's not acceptable," Doan said. "It's suggestive."

The identification helped lead prosecutors to file a murder charge against the suspect, Marlon Morales. Morales denied involvement in the killing, saying he was at a Pasadena church at the time.

During the 2007 trial, Morales' attorney attacked the detectives' handling of the photo lineup. "If I told you this is what happened and we didn't have a tape, you probably wouldn't believe me," Carol Ojo told jurors.

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