SAN ANTONIO - The San Antonio Police Department has changed its policy on how it conducts eyewitness identifications.
Under the department’s new procedures, a potential witness will no longer be shown an array of mug pictures all at once.
Research shows that practice increases the chances of a misidentification.
Instead an SAPD officer will display the mug pictures one at a time – a procedure the State of Texas now recommends.
(Read background story below.)
False eyewitness identifications are largely blamed for nearly 40 wrongful convictions in Texas.
“We don't want to put anyone in the system that doesn't belong in the system,” said SAPD Police Chief William McManus. “This way is a more accurate way of doing business, so that’s what we are going to do."
Last year, state lawmakers passed a bill requiring all law enforcement agencies to have a written photo lineup policy by September 1.
SAPD implemented its new policy on August 31.
I-Team Investigative Report (February 2nd, 2012)
He spent 27 years in prison for a crime he never committed.
"I was devastated. I couldn't believe it,” 55-year-old Johnny Pinchback said as he recalled the day in 1984 when he was convicted of raping two Dallas teenage girls.
Pinchback was sentenced to 99 years in jail.
Pinchback’s lawyers said the problems with the original investigation started when the two rape victims pointed at a picture of Pinchback in a photo lineup.
The type of lineup used in Pinchback’s case has time and time again pointed investigators toward the wrong suspect and continues to be used at police departments across Texas.
Pinchback said he is one of the lucky ones.
“I never gave up hope,” he said.
Because physical evidence from the crime scene was saved, when advancements were made in DNA testing, Pinchback’s case was given a second look.
In May, Pinchback was exonerated.
"Being locked up as long as I was, I kept my composure because I wasn't going to believe it until I walked out that door and saw my family out there," Pinchback said.
Pinchback is one of 44 Texas inmates who have been exonerated.
Three out of every four were wrongfully convicted based in part on faulty eyewitness identification.
Photo display affects effectiveness of lineups
"It's not the case that they are always wrong. It's just the case that they are often wrong," said Scott Henson, who has spent years researching photo lineups.
He said the way so many Texas law enforcement agencies conduct lineups inadvertently leads witnesses astray.
His research shows one of the biggest factors is increasing the odds of a misidentification is how the photos are displayed.
Spreading all the pictures out at once, as was done in Pinchback’s case, instead of one by one increases the odds of a misidentification by 50 percent, according to research conducted by the Law Enforcement Management Institute at Sam Houston State.
“When you show them the photos one at a time, they are not comparing the photos to one another but comparing them to their memory,” Henson explained. “The research shows that generates much more accurate outcomes."
Henson serves as a consultant for the Innocence Project of Texas, the non-profit behind dozens of exonerations.
The group is currently looking into more than a thousand additional cases.
“There could be anywhere from 1,200 to 3,000 or so innocent people falsely convicted in Texas prisons," he said.
No exonerations in Bexar County
While not knowing any particular case, Henson said he would not be surprised if dozens of people have been wrongfully convicted in Bexar County.
So far there hasn't been a single exoneration in the county, and the Bexar County District Attorney's Office said it will likely stay that way.
"We are not going back and looking at old cases because the vast majority of cases do not rest solely on eyewitness identification," Assistant District Attorney Cliff Herberg explained.
Herberg said he acknowledges eyewitness identifications, no matter how they're done, are not perfect.
But he added that doesn't mean his office has ever convicted the wrong person.
“So far to date, every time a defendant has raised a claim that they have new DNA that proves their innocence, it has come back and proved they were the person," he said.
State lawmakers last year passed a bill that established a model policy for eyewitness identifications based on the research from Sam Houston State.
All Texas law enforcement agencies are now also required to come up with their own polices for eyewitness identifications by September.
SAPD updating its policy
The San Antonio Police Department is in the process of updating its photo lineup policy to more closely follow the model policy developed by the state.
The department's current manual, while in compliance with state law, does recommend arranging all photos at once --- the same tactic that led to Pinchback being misidentified.
“It would have made a difference,” said Pinchback when asked about the new policies.
Pinchback said he believes had investigators done the photo lineup the way the state now recommends, he never would have been convicted and never would have spent 27 years behind bars.
"You can't catch up,” he said. "There's no catching up.”