The day he got out of prison after 20 years, Anthony Williams went to McDonald’s.
A photo from that day shows him sitting in the backseat of a car, a McDonald’s cup next to him and a cellphone in his hand.
“He wanted to go to McDonald’s and he wanted to hold a cellphone. He’d never held a cellphone. He said, ‘I’ve seen them on TV, but I’ve never got to touch one,’” recalls UTC’s Dr. David Ross.
It was the work of Ross and UTC graduate students that convinced the court to overturn Williams’ conviction on a murder charge; he was 14 when he went in, 34 when he got out.
Through their research, they showed that testimony from eyewitnesses couldn’t possibly be right; they testified that Williams had gone to their school and lived in a particular apartment complex. He had done neither.
“I’ll never forget him calling me and he said, ‘I’m on the cellphone and do you know what about McDonald’s? They give free refills,’” Ross says. “Then he said, ‘Nothing in prison is free.’”
For most of his 30-year career in psychology, Ross, a UC Foundation professor and a member of the graduate faculty, has examined police lineups, determining whether the correct procedures were followed and if evidence that comes out of them is “clean.”
“Lineups are one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions in the American legal system,” he says. “People make mistakes picking out the wrong guy in a lineup, oftentimes because the procedures used to collect the identification are faulty.
“But you’ve gotta have them, so you’ve gotta learn how to make sure that we do it accurately for everybody. My entire attention is to increase the accuracy of the legal system,” he adds.
Blunt-speaking and pugnacious with a side of brash, Ross has been called to cases including murders, assaults and bank robberies. As they did in the Williams case, he and his team look at procedures used in the investigation and the evidence they produced. After their examination, they issue a report on the findings.
“A report can help; it can hurt. I don’t care,” Ross says. “I only take cases where there’s been a really big screw-up procedurally. I’m not trying to win the case for either side. I tell them up front: I’m a scientist, I’ll tell you good, bad and ugly.”
Based on his work, Ross was given the 2017 Liberty Bell Award from the Chattanooga Bar Association, an honor “to recognize community service that has strengthened the American system of freedom under law,” the association says.
“His work has not been to advance a plaintiff’s cause over a defendant in a civil case or vice versa; or the prosecution’s cause over a defendant’s, or vice versa,” the association said in a news release.
“He has worked with plaintiff lawyers and defense lawyers in countless civil cases, to assist them in jury selection, witness preparation, and focus groups to identify strengths and weaknesses in the case. He has also worked with prosecutors across the state, police departments, and defense counsel in criminal proceedings to be sure that the most scientifically reliable and accurate testimony is developed and presented considering the weaknesses of human perception and memory.”
Following the rules
The proper procedures for lineups are detailed by instructions released in 1999 by the U.S. Department of Justice. The guidelines have been tweaked through the years, including a manual published in 2003 by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Some states — New Jersey and North Carolina, for example — make it mandatory that law enforcement follow the guidelines. They’re also an integral part of investigations in some metro areas.
Some states, some cities … but not all.
“The hardest part is that we have all this research, decades of research, that shows how lineups should be done,” says Emily Pica, who has a Ph.D. in psychology and has worked with Ross for years on lineup research. “It’s hard for research to get into the legal system. While there are guidelines, we don’t know if those guidelines are being followed.”
Ross and Pica have written books and peer-to-peer articles on eyewitnesses and lineups; Ross gives presentations to law enforcement departments across the country, including the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference.
“My whole mission is to try to train law enforcement how to do it right based on research,” he says “We know how memory works, so we’re more likely to get the bad guy and less likely to have a bad conviction. That’s my only interest.
“Our science doesn’t have any value if it doesn’t apply to the real world.”
With Williams, Ross and his graduate students spent about 600 hours — the equivalent of 25 days — examining court plowing through eyewitness lineups and other court documents. They came to the conclusion that the eyewitnesses made serious mistakes, the worst of which was placing Williams at the scene of the crime even though he wasn’t there.
“It was one of the worst lineups, worst representation I’ve ever seen in my 30 years of doing this,” says Ross.
But such problems are not an uncommon in lineups, he says.
“We’re very good at recognizing familiar faces. We’re terrible at remembering where we’ve seen them,” he says.
If a lineup includes a familiar face, even if it’s not the suspect — or even if the suspect is not in the lineup at all — the witness may think, “Oh yeah, he’s gotta be there. I recognize him and he wouldn’t be in the lineup if he weren’t a suspect.’”
Still, Ross says lineups are “pretty accurate if you do it right.”
“I think eyewitness testimony is misperceived. People think that it’s highly inaccurate, but that’s not true. It can be extremely accurate if it’s collected properly, if they follow the proper procedures.”
At their core, lineups are all about “cognitive and social psychology,” Ross says. “It’s how people think and process information.”
The memory of eyewitnesses, even if there’s no doubt they actually saw the crime take place, can be influenced by multiple factors. Was there a gun in their face, for instance? Were they beaten up? What was the lighting like? How long did the actual crime take? How long has it been between the time of the crime and the lineup?
In their zeal to help the police and convict the right person, some witnesses also get “trigger happy” and make wrong choices, Ross says, but most “don’t go in trying to make an ID of the wrong guy.”
“They’re there trying to do the best job they can and they rely on the police to present an identification procedure that’s going to be fair and accurate.”
Getting a conviction certainly doesn’t mean the witness got it right, he says, but “I like to think that the system gets it right more often than it gets it wrong.”