from the all-hail-our-future-biometric-overlords dept
Never let it be said law enforcement won't get their man. Even if it's the wrong man. And even if they do it twice.
This was Denver native Steven Talley's first experience with the local PD.
It was just after sundown when a man knocked on Steve Talley’s door in south Denver. The man claimed to have hit Talley’s silver Jeep Cherokee and asked him to assess the damage. So Talley, wearing boxers and a tank top, went outside to take a look.
Seconds later, he was knocked to the pavement outside his house. Flash bang grenades detonated, temporarily blinding and deafening him. Three men dressed in black jackets, goggles, and helmets repeatedly hit him with batons and the butts of their guns. He remembers one of the men telling him, “So you like to fuck with my brothers in blue!” while another stood on his face and cracked two of his teeth. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he remembers shouting. “You guys are crazy.”
Talley was driven to a Denver detention center, where he was booked for two bank robberies — the first on May 14 and the second on September 5, 2014, 10 days before his arrest — and for assaulting an officer during the second robbery.
Surveillance camera footage from the robbed banks had been circulated. Acquaintances and Talley's estranged ex-wife asserted that the man shown was Talley. Using these statements, the Denver PD moved forward with its particularly brutal arrest, one that left Talley with multiple injuries.
In the months that followed, a series of medical exams revealed that Talley had sustained several injuries on the night of his arrest, including a broken sternum, several broken teeth, four ruptured disks, blood clots in his right leg, nerve damage in his right ankle, and a possibly fractured penis.
Talley was held for two months until recordings made by his employer showed he was at his desk on sales calls during the time the May robbery took place. He was released and charges were dropped. But investigators still didn't have the right suspect in custody. So they turned the footage over to the FBI, which put one of its facial recognition experts on the case.
The detective assigned to Talley’s case, Jeffery Hart, had requested that an FBI facial examiner manually compare stills from the banks’ grainy surveillance videos to several pictures of Talley — a tall, broad-shouldered white man with short blond hair, mild blue eyes, and a square jaw.
The FBI analysis concluded that Talley’s face did not match the May robber’s, but that he and the September robber shared multiple corresponding characteristics, including the shape of the head, chin, jaw line, mole marks, and ear features. “The questioned individual depicted” in the September images, the report concluded, “appears to be Talley.”
"Appears." That was enough to justify putting Talley through this whole nightmarish experience again. Talley was arrested again, under the new law enforcement theory that the robberies had been committed by two different men, both of whom resembled Talley enough to have him arrested twice.
This time, the case fell apart almost immediately.
The FBI’s facial analysis was further called into question in court, when the prosecution’s star witness directly contradicted its conclusions. When Bonita Shipp — the sole witness to the September 5 robbery, who had previously identified Talley based on Hart’s photographic line-up — took the stand, she testified that Talley was not the same man who threatened her and robbed her station.
According to the internal bank form tellers fill out after each robbery, Shipp originally described the suspect as 6 feet, 175 pounds, with a slender build. But the man who stood before her, she noted, did not fit this description. Talley stood just under 6 feet 4 inches and weighed between 230 and 250 pounds. He did not, in her opinion, appear to be a slender man.
[I]n the cross-examination with the prosecutor, Shipp said that she had not previously told anybody about the robber’s hands. “When he reached his hands over the counter,” she told the DA, “I could see through his surgical gloves, and I could — he had like marks on his hands.”
The markings were moles and freckles, which she believed she would recognize if presented again with the robber’s hands. At the hearing, Talley offered to show Shipp his hands, and she examined them. “It’s not him,” she told the courtroom. “It’s not the guy who robbed me.” The prosecutor, Shipp recalled, went slack-jawed.
The reliance on facial recognition proved much more fallible than was asserted in court. The similarity between the faces -- as determined by the FBI's expert -- was based on little more than what one forensic scientist called "voodoo witchcraft."
No threshold currently exists for the number of points of similarity necessary to constitute a match. Even when agencies like the FBI do institute classification guidelines, subjective comparisons have been shown to differ greatly from examiner to examiner. And the appearance of differences, or similarities, between faces can often depend on photographic conditions outside of the examiner’s control, such as perspective, lighting, image quality, and camera angle.
And yet, the FBI and many other law enforcement agencies believe facial recognition software -- utilizing massive databases -- will do a better job than their own experts, which aren't exactly setting the forensic science world on fire. If anything, the move to software will only guarantee replicable errors, rather than a significant decrease in false positives. And whatever the software decides will still need to be translated by a human and presented by an expert in court, where claims of "certainty" have long been overstated.
Talley's case is one of the more dramatic outcomes of reliance on forensic techniques too inconclusive to truly be called "science." The continued push towards more reliance on experts' subjectivity and massive biometric databases ensures Talley's case won't remain an anomaly. In this incident, the only thing that's been proven is that law enforcement has the means and methods to arrest the wrong guy twice for the same crime.