Three decades ago, a victim’s imperfect memory sent Larry Youngblood to prison.
DNA evidence would later clear the Tucson man of involvement with a 1983 child abduction and rape, but not before he would languish for a total of nine years behind bars.
Advocates are pointing to this case and a growing number of others to discredit the sanctity of one of the legal system’s most cherished prosecutorial tools: eyewitness testimony.
Last week, the National Academy of Sciences released a report evaluating the scientific research on memory and eyewitnesses, underlining key variables that can lead to flawed identifications.
The report recommends various best-practice procedures, including blind testing, (when the officer performing the lineup is unaware of the suspect), videotaping the procedure, developing standardized witness instructions and asking the witness to rate his or her level of confidence at the time of the lineup.
The Innocence Project, a national litigation and public-policy organization that lobbies for freedom of the wrongfully convicted, has pushed for states to uniformly adopt these techniques, to mixed results.
Ten states so far have enacted the recommendations by law, policy or court action. Arizona is not one of them, but some jurisdictions have voluntarily embraced the reforms.
Innocence Project officials have advocated presenting photos or suspects in sequential order instead of simultaneously. Supporters say research shows the method helps prevent wrongful convictions by reducing the pressure to “pick one.”
The Tucson Police Department was one of four agencies to participate in an Innocence Project and American Judicature Society field study using sequential testing. The agency adopted the method following the study’s report, said Tucson police legal adviser Lisa Judge.
“The impetus for us was doing what we could to rely on the most credible evidence available,” she said. “Certainly you can’t ignore that across the nation, there’s evidence that points to wrongful convictions based on bad IDS.”
Youngblood’s saga began in 1983, when a 10-year-old boy was kidnapped from a Pima County carnival, molested and held for more than an hour. The boy received a rape examination and told investigators his assailant was a Black man with a bad right eye.
But when police presented a photo lineup to the boy nine days later, it was Youngblood, a Black Tucson man with a disfigured left eye, who stood out. Youngblood was arrested four weeks later.
Youngblood’s chief defense in trial was that the boy had been mistaken, but a jury disagreed. He was convicted in 1985 and sentenced to 10½ years in prison. In a crucial misstep, Tucson police failed to properly store DNA evidence collected from the boy at the time, rendering it useless for emerging forensic technology.
Legal battles over Youngblood’s right to DNA would free and reincarcerate the man until more sophisticated DNA testing became available for the evidence. In 2000, Youngblood’s claims of innocence were at last scientifically validated. He was not the assailant.
Instead, the evidence led investigators to Walter Cruise, a Black man who was blind in his right eye, and serving time in a Texas prison for unrelated charges of sex assaults against children. Cruise later pleaded guilty to the Arizona crime.
Carol Wittels, Youngblood’s public defender who fought for his freedom, said the prosecution’s case hinged nearly entirely on the victim’s identification, despite conflicting evidence.
Several people vouched for Youngblood’s alibi — that he was baking lemon meringue pies at the time of the abduction, Wittels said.
The victim had also noted there were tufts of gray in his assailant’s hair, while a hair expert testified that Youngblood’s black locks had never been dyed.
“Larry’s case always haunted me — he was such a sweetie,” she said. “I knew he was innocent.”
Eyewitness misidentifications have contributed to 72 percent of the 318 convictions that were later overturned by DNA evidence, according to the Innocence Project.
The true perpetrators were later identified in 39 percent of those cases, but were free to commit 98 additional violent crimes while the innocent were locked up, the organization says.
Experts say most of the mistaken eyewitnesses aren’t intentionally lying. While no single factor shoulders the blame for the human error, researchers say police practices often fall short on their efforts to ensure accurate eyewitness identification.
“(I)nsufficient training, the absence of standard operating procedures and the continuing presence of actions and statements at the crime scene and elsewhere may intentionally or unintentionally influence eyewitness identifications,” the report states.
Scientists have long understood memory to be malleable by time and outside variables, but advocates say jurors still place too much trust on the brain’s accuracy.
Amshula Jayaram, a state policy advocate for the Innocence Project, explains the recommended reforms as a cost-benefit analysis.
Defenders are getting trained on how to litigate using current sciences, she said, and officers using best practices are also protecting themselves from accusations of wrongdoing during an unreliable process.
“These practices are designed to improve accuracy, but you’ll never have 100 percent accurate eyewitness identifications,” she said. “Memory is fundamentally fallible.”
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said today it would be a rare case that rises or falls on the basis of an eyewitness alone without any other evidence.
Montgomery and Innocence Project officials have disagreed on the subject of sequential versus simultaneous eyewitness identification testing.
Montgomery said he has resisted the reform because scientific evidence has not backed up the claim that the sequential method is preferable. He pointed to a recent case in which a Pennsylvania man’s murder charges were dropped after a mistaken sequential identification.