Schenectady County

Police lineups more work, more effective

A rapist was on the loose in Schenectady and police believed they had their suspect, but a key piece
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A rapist was on the loose in Schenectady and police believed they had their suspect, but a key piece of evidence was missing.

His DNA matched the evidence, but would the victim remember his face? And would that recollection ever see a courtroom?

This was a case in which a woman had been violently raped in a downtown parking garage. The rapist had approached, asking for directions, then followed her into an underground parking garage and attacked on the afternoon of March 11.

But it was a case that had already taken at least one wrong turn. Authorities now say a suspect had been targeted earlier and identified by the victim from a series of photos, called an array, but that suspect was later cleared.

Now, evidence on file in the state’s DNA database pointed to another suspect, a 23-year-old recent parolee named Brian L. Sullivan.

Would the victim do the same?

“We didn’t want to try another photo array,” Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney said last week. “We thought that in this case, we would do a lineup and see what happens.”

That’s the police lineup made famous in television police dramas, the one in which six flesh-and-blood people — one of them the main suspect — stand in a line, with the victim out of sight.

It was the first time in recent memory that the police used a lineup.

The photo array, a far less dramatic and sometimes less useful tool, is employed widely by police departments.

There are problems with both techniques, authorities and experts say.

Picking the perpetrator

Photo arrays are fast but not admissible in New York courts. Lineups take hours or days to set up but can be admissible.

Both systems share potential problems: Does the suspect stick out from the rest? Does the person administering the test know who the suspect is and, subconsciously or otherwise, lead the victim to that person?

“Some younger attorneys don’t know how important they are,” Schenectady County Public Defender Mark Caruso said of the identification procedures. “But if an identification gets suppressed, there may not be a case.” Photo arrays have been the norm for years, authorities say, for one main reason: They’re just easier.

Police these days have access to thousands of photos through computer databases. Those photos can be searched for general characteristics key to a non-suggestive array.

“The upside of a photo array is you can plug characteristics into the computer,” Schenectady Police spokesman Lt. Brian Kilcullen said. “They can be put together fairly quickly. A lineup is not so quick.”

Authorities can search for skin color, eye color, facial hair and hairstyles.

Even background color is important.

At one recent court hearing, Schenectady Police Detective Sgt. Arthur Zampella told how he prepared a photo array in the case of Vale rapist Chester Williamson.

Zampella showed the same array to three witnesses. All three identified Williamson.

He found similar-looking individuals, but the photos had varying backgrounds, dark and light. He used three of each and staggered the backgrounds in the array.

The judge ruled that the array was non-suggestive; Williamson would later admit his role and plead guilty.

Reliability questions

But even though the judge ruled in favor of prosecutors, a jury in Williamson’s case might never have heard that the identification happened at all. Photo array identifications are not admissible in New York courts because of the notion that the jury would assume that the suspect’s photo was a mug shot and that the suspect had been arrested before, Carney said.

Other states allow photo arrays to be used in court. In New York, they are used to set the stage for a courtroom identification.

For defense attorneys, the arrays can be useful if a judge finds them to be suggestive. They can tell the jury that. They can also make sure the jury knows about an identification made of another suspect.

Caruso, Sullivan’s attorney, has long since been notified that the victim initially identified another person as her attacker. He declined to be specific about the information, but, he said, it’s certainly an issue to be raised.

Defense attorneys and critics raise other issues, as well.

Some have suggested that victims be showed the photos or people in sequence, rather than all at once, arguing that it forces victims to focus on each individual photo and can improve identifications.

Albany Law School professor Laurie Shanks pointed to an Illinois study that showed that the sequential method had the opposite effect: a higher rate of false identifications. Carney also cited the Illinois study in dismissing the sequential method.

Then there’s the so-called double-blind method, in which the person administering the test doesn’t know which person is the suspect.

Shanks advocates that method.

“It’s almost impossible to stay completely neutral,” Shanks said.

It can be easy, she said, for someone to send inadvertent cues to a witness. They can also applaud the pick, making it more difficult for a witness to express doubt.

The administrator of Schenectady arrays knows which is the suspect. In small departments, Carney said, that can be difficult to avoid.

Another element, Shanks said, is whether a suspect has been shown to a witness in multiple arrays. If the witness picked the wrong one the first time, they could pick the suspect the second time by remembering him from the first set rather than from the crime scene.

Lineup of look-alikes

In Sullivan’s case, Carney said, his photo was not in the initial array. The lineup was the first time the victim had been presented with Sullivan.

But first, police had to assemble a lineup. Sullivan was arrested March 25 on a parole violation and was in jail; that gave detectives time to craft a lineup.

They walked and searched and eventually found five people who looked reasonably like the 6-foot, 185-pound, brown-haired, brown-eyed parolee. One man, Carney recalled, they found in a bank.

For their trouble — and worry that they might be selected and become suspects themselves — line-up participants received payment of $40.

Prosecutors secured Sullivan’s presence by court order.

A former cafeteria in the police station basement served as the lineup room. The six were ushered in, the front of the room flooded with light. Tags normally used for evidence were lined up 1-6 where each stood.

The room had a small place toward the back where the woman could stand behind glass and out of sight in a darkened area.

Carney was there, as was Caruso, as Sullivan’s attorney. Caruso’s presence was important, Carney said, so he could observe everything first-hand.

Police prompted each of the six to step forward and say a phrase the woman reported that her attacker said — another advantage to lineups and another that carries its own set of variables.

Carney declined to detail what happened next, including the woman’s reactions. He only said that she did identify Sullivan.

Sullivan was charged April 3 with first-degree rape, among other charges.

Whether the lineup identification can be used in court will be determined in a court hearing. For now, Carney said, authorities are pleased with how the effort turned out. They got an identification that can potentially be used in court and using a method that has seldom been tried.

And now authorities have practice using a lineup.

“They’ve been very positive about the whole experience,” Carney said. “And now we know we have a place and a way to do it, they’re telling me they’d like to do it in more cases.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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