ON TRIAL UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT EL PASO
BY M I C H A E L H . P R I C E R E S E A R C H T E X A S , I N C .
EL PASO • “Round up the usual suspects,” orders Claude Kains, playing a police official of corrupt efficiency in Michael (“urtiz’ Ciisnhlnnai (1942).
In just so few words, that classic drama of wartime intrigues and lawbreaking shenanigans crystallizes a commonplace procedural tactic.
The custom of a police lineup — an iconic image in hard-boiled crime fiction — has become a new proving ground for a scientific community seeking to lend coherence and fairness to the process of isolating likely culprits from the random catches of a police dragnet.
Suspect identification, after all, has historically placed viclims and witnesses in the awkward position of nailing an accusation from a confusing array of possible offenders: Here, in a real-time lineup of probable miscreants or a procession of mug-.shot photographs, might be the perpetrator ofthe offense under investigation. Or perhaps not.
A research project at the University of Texas at HI Paso has begun seeking more accurate methods of narrowing a selection of culprits.
One potential upshot ofthe traditional lineup is a familiar waking nightmare for the justice system: Some luckless schlub goes to jail for a crime he didn’t commit. And meanwhile, the actual menace roams free.
A variant upon this scenario is crucial to another ot Old Hollywood’s crime melodramas, William Beaudine’s Pluinlow Killer (1942). The title character operates with impunity, wbat with his being recognized more widely as a big-shot philanthropist. When an office-building janitor becomes a witness to this businessman’s presence at a crime scene, the janitor finds himself confronted with a mug-shot lineup at a precinct station.
Under such pressure to identify a culprit from the array of “usual suspects.” a witness might just as easily single out somebody who has
nothing to do with the crime-ot- the-momcnt. Phaiiioin Killer’s genuine perpetrator is, after all, hardly the type whose likeness would grace a book of police mugs.
But random chance (not necessarily to say fate) intrudes in the form ot a newspaper that one detective is reading, witbin view of the janitor and all those usual- suspect faces. The newspaper contains a prominent story, complete with photograph, about the secretly murderous captain of industry. The witness notices the newspaper— and voilal Phauto)u Killer’s investigation takes off on an unexpected tangent.
So familiar has the dragnet- and-lineup tradition become that the filmmaker Bryan Singer could christen his breakout movie ot 1995 as The Usual Suspects, in full contldence that the Casabhimn reference would not go sailing over the heads of an audience. To anchor Singer’s tllm in classic crime-melodrama imagery, the marketing campaign built a poster for The Usual Suspects around an image ot a cop-shop lineup.
But at UTEP’s Eyewitness Identification Research Laboratory, such imagery is more a case-study device than a pop-culture cliche. Here, a group of professors and students is studying police lineups and other investigative procedures involving witnesses.
Dr. Roy S. Malpass, professor of psychology and criminal justice, and Dr. Christian A. Meissner, assistant professor of psychology, are in charge of the lab, which Malpass established in 1992.
Malpass maintains that a majority of wrongful convictions stems from mistaken identifications. Supporting this statement are figures trom the New York-based Innocence Project, a non-profit group that uses DNA evidence to free wrongfully accused peopie.
The Innocence Project reports that mistaken identification was the leading tactor in 101 of 130 wrongful convictions that later were reversed on grounds of DNA evidence.
Malpass says a primary focus of the lab, one of few such operations, is that of developing techniques for creating what he calls “quality police lineups.”
12 RESEARCH TEXAS, INC