In decades of criminal defense work, I have never seen a case like this one. In Portland, police suspected Tyrone Lamont Allen of robbing four banks and credit unions. However, none of the tellers reported seeing his prominent facial tattoos. In a decision that should result in serious disciplinary action, the police photoshopped out the tattoos before showing the picture in a photo line up. The witnesses then identified Allen.
Police forensic criminalist Mark Weber testified that he merely “painted over the tattoos . . . like applying electronic makeup.’’ It was more than that. It was “like” altering the appearance of suspects to secure a criminal identification.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul Maloney insisted that there was nothing wrong with the changes because “the whole idea was to make Mr. Allen blend in – so his photo wouldn’t stand out . . . These procedures were prudent. They were appropriate.’’ That is absurd. While Maloney told the court that the changes were made to “look like the disguises that were on the robber,’’ the robber only wore a baseball hat and glasses. He did not cover his face. The preferred practice is not to alter photos for a line up. However, if the police were seeking to tailor the photo, why not put a baseball cap on each of the images rather than remove prominent facial markings?
Give the persistent unreliability of witness identification, the actual removal of identifying features is an outrageous act. We have previously discussed such cases. One study showed that roughly 75 percent of cases overturned by DNA evidence involved convictions based on eyewitness identification — often more than one such witness. Jurors are heavily influenced by such identifications in court and prosecutors know that such a witness can overcome other evidentiary shortcomings. To engineer an identification through photoshopping is therefore particularly egregious and far . . . far from “prudent.”