ST. LOUIS • After city police arrested Cornealious “Mike” Anderson for a purse snatching, he told them, “I did not do this crime. I need you to go out and find him so I can get home to my wife and child.”
But they didn’t follow up. Even though he had an alibi and about 40 witnesses who could help prove it.
Police, confident Anderson was their man, ended their investigation after relying on one of the least reliable types of evidence: eyewitness identification.
The robbery victim had been in a White Castle drive-thru in the 800 block of South Broadway and had just stepped out of the passenger side of a vehicle for a smoke about 1 a.m. Nov. 16 when a man snatched her purse and ran.
Police stopped Anderson as he walked nearby about a half hour later. They took him to the victim and witness, who confidently identified the face illuminated by an officer’s light. Police call it a “show-up identification” — in which police catch a suspect quickly and ask a witness whether to lock him up or send him on his way.
It’s considered much less reliable than having a witness pick a suspect from a line of live people or pictures. Defense attorneys complain that the “show-up” is fundamentally unfair, because the sight of a suspect in custody can create an illusion of guilt.
And studies show people are not good at recognizing people of other races. Anderson is black; the purse owner and witness are white.
But the show-up is expedient. In the moments after a crime, when memories are fresh, it tells police whether to make an arrest or keep looking, without the delay of bringing everyone to a formal lineup.
Anderson, of Webster Groves, had been in the news before. He was convicted of a robbery in 2000 but because of a clerical error not ordered to report to prison until 2013. Last year, a judge freed him, with 4,794 days of credit for the good life Anderson led in between.
The officers who arrested Anderson on Nov. 16 violated department protocol from the start, officials acknowledged Friday, by showing Anderson to the victim and witness at the same time. Protocol says witnesses should each decide independently.
Defense attorneys and experts say eyewitness mistakes are the greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide. Nearly three out of every four people exonerated by DNA testing were misidentified by witnesses, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic.
Police Chief Sam Dotson said Friday that he would review the handling of Anderson’s case and order discipline or policy changes, if needed. He also said that he was sorry, and that his officers tried in good faith to get it right.
Nick Zotos, a veteran St. Louis-area defense attorney not involved in Anderson’s case, said show-up identifications were common. “There is a robbery, you bring the guy back to the scene. It’s been going on since I was a public defender 30 years ago. They act like this was some abnormal event; it was not,” he said.
In a 2010 article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, lawyers Michael D. Cicchini of Milwaukee and Joseph G. Easton of Indianapolis pointed to studies that show-ups are both highly unreliable and irresistible to jurors.
“When a show-up is conducted and an innocent suspect is falsely identified, the police have no way of determining that the identification is false,” they wrote. “Therefore, not only is the innocent suspect arrested and prosecuted, but the true perpetrator goes free.”
In an interview Friday, Cicchini scoffed at the notion that show-ups saved time. “What good is a show-up if they produce so many false identifications?”
Another potentially confusing factor was that the victims saw Anderson walking by immediately after the robbery, and before he was arrested, said Samuel Henderson, one of Anderson’s attorneys.
Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce, while declining to speak about specifics, said generally that police needed to consider factors that could add to an eyewitness’ confusion. Was it dark? Was the suspect another race? Has the witness ever seen the suspect before?
After a positive ID, the next step would be retracing the suspect’s steps. But police didn’t do that, even though Anderson told them he had been at a party with his wife at Social House Bar, several blocks south.
Asked Thursday why there had been no follow-up, police Major Michael Caruso explained that Anderson had been identified “no questions asked, no doubt in my mind.” But on Friday, Dotson acknowledged it was a policing failure. He said a supervisor on the scene “should have been more proactive.”
Police also did not review surveillance footage from the White Castle parking lot, nor from other businesses Anderson had visited or passed. That would come later — after Anderson had been charged, spent several days in jail and paid $10,000 cash bail — when his attorneys and prosecutors started uncovering flaws.
“We call it avoidance of bad evidence, meaning any evidence that’s contrary to your beliefs,” said Mike Levine, a Stone Ridge, N.Y.-based author and consultant on police procedures.
“They’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to check his alibi. I know they are going to have a phony alibi so I’m not going to check that.’ That’s what happened here. It’s just not reasonable that you didn’t follow up on the alibi, that you don’t go back and talk to the 30-40 people (at the restaurant) who might have seen him.”
That night, police seemed more interested in what they felt didn’t fit. Why would Anderson be walking two miles to his parked car? (His attorney said he had taken a party bus from downtown.)
Dotson said that follow-up did take place, although he acknowledged that the Riverfront Times newspaper — not his department — had taken the lead.
“Isn’t that kind of what happened?” he said. “That his story, as people began to look into it, investigate it and look into it, it became clear that it was less likely he committed this crime. So isn’t that exactly what happened?”
More errors followed. Once Anderson was in custody, prosecutors wanted witnesses to see Anderson in a lineup, which Joyce said was always better than a show-up.
She said eyewitness identification “is the backbone of the criminal justice system … but it must be gathered properly.”
Department policy requires at least four other “fillers” for the lineup, but there were only three available who looked enough like Anderson to be used, according to the police report.
In this case, Anderson’s attorneys maintain, he stood out because the other men looked different from him. And the witnesses had already seen Anderson, in the same clothes.
Zotos said that in this situation, “It’s the same guy they recognize and it reinforces whatever mistake they made the first time.”
Dotson said Anderson’s lineup was otherwise proper: The officer did not know who the suspect was and therefore could not pass on subtle clues. And the victim and the witness were called in separately. Each did pick Anderson; the victim shook and became upset as she did.
Dotson said: “They had strong convictions that we had the right person. Based on their conviction, based on their belief, we moved forward with the case.”
“The process worked in this case because of the work of the police department and circuit attorneys’ office. We are still looking for the right person, and the wrong person is not going to go to jail.”