‘You took 32 years of my life’: Freed man accuses LAPD detective of manipulating eyewitness ID
The teenager stared at 16 mugshots, searching for the face of the man who had stabbed her boyfriend to death while they slept in his pickup truck in South L.A.
It was November 1984 — a month after the slaying — and Saladena Bishop already had pointed police toward two suspects who were quickly ruled out. Now, Los Angeles police Det. Richard Marks had a new photo lineup, and he drew her attention to No. 7.
“What about him?” the detective asked, referring to a picture of Andrew Wilson.
Bishop said that was the man — she was nearly certain, according to Marks.
Wilson, who always maintained his innocence, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in a case that relied almost entirely on the witness’ identification. More than three decades passed before a judge in 2017 threw out the conviction and freed him.
A civil rights lawsuit filed this week by Wilson, 63, accuses Marks of leading the witness to falsely identify him as a killer — and underscores a continuing controversy over the way many police agencies handle eyewitness identifications.
The age-old police method of asking someone to pick a suspect from a lineup has fallen under increasing scrutiny in recent years and shoulders some of the blame for hundreds of wrongful convictions across the country. The straightforward witness direction by Marks has drawn sharp criticism from prosecutors, defense attorneys and eyewitness memory experts.
Wilson’s lawsuit against the former detective, as well as the city and county of Los Angeles, alleges that Marks’ actions were unconstitutional and that the district attorney’s office for years failed to protect the rights of criminal suspects.
“You took 32 years of my life,” Wilson said during a recent interview. “You can’t give that back to me.”
Last year, a record 37 people were exonerated in cases based, at least in part, on bad eyewitness identifications, according to a national database.
To address the problem, a California commission more than a decade ago urged police to stop having lead detectives show witnesses an array of photographs of possible suspects side by side. Instead, the panel recommended adopting a “double-blind” procedure, in which an officer who doesn’t know which picture belongs to the suspect shows the witness a series of photographs one after the other.
Advocates of the method say it prevents officers from even unconsciously steering a witness to a particular photograph. Several law enforcement agencies, including those in North Carolina and New Jersey, as well as the San Francisco Police Department and law enforcement in Santa Clara County, have switched to the method. But others, including the LAPD, have been reluctant to adopt the double-blind method and still allow case investigators to handle lineups.
The police union said it believes the proposed law would lead to fewer solved crimes, arguing that witnesses and victims “will be unwilling to freely offer information to anyone they do not know, trust or feel comfortable with,” according to state documents.
The way Marks directed the witness to Wilson’s photo — a practice he said he used at times throughout his career — is an overt example of how eyewitness identification can go wrong, said Gary L. Wells, an Iowa State University psychology professor who has studied the practice for decades.
“The problems here are legion,” Wells said. “He’s just completely giving out his hypothesis that that’s the guy we’re focused on.”
Witnesses, he said, “tend to think that police know the answer, and they’re there to help provide confirmation.”
In an interview with The Times, Marks defended his handling of Wilson’s case, saying he made clear notes in the official record about having directed the witness. The retired detective said he has read literature on eyewitness identification in recent years and agrees it has limitations, but doesn’t think his actions led to a false identification.
“I certainly have a clear conscience,” he said.
After his retirement in 2008, Marks did consulting work for the district attorney’s office, reviewing evidence and offering his opinion in at least two high-profile police shootings — which ultimately ended in prosecutors declining to file charges against the officers in either case.
The district attorney’s office declined to comment, citing the pending litigation; the LAPD did not respond to a request for comment.
From behind bars, Wilson in 1999 filed an official complaint about Marks with the LAPD, according to the lawsuit.
But the first sign of hope didn’t come until August 2014, when he got a letter from a deputy federal public defender. The attorney wrote that he represented another man serving life for murder, and that an eyewitness had recently recanted, saying Marks and his partner had coerced a false identification. Marks denied any wrongdoing in that case.
Not long after, the attorney visited Wilson in prison and alerted Loyola Law School’s innocence project, which championed the case.
Loyola lawyers tracked down the trial prosecutor, Laura Aalto, who in July 2016 signed a declaration saying she’d long felt “uneasy” about the prosecution. Aalto wrote that during Wilson’s trial, she wasn’t aware Marks had directed the witness during the photo lineup.
“I do not know,” she wrote, “how any detective could have thought that was a legitimate way to conduct an identification procedure, even in 1984.”
Five months later, Marks sat down for a recorded interview with Wilson’s lawyers and a deputy district attorney.
The detective said he considered Wilson a “thug,” clarifying he meant someone who committed crimes to support a drug habit. During the interview, the prosecutor asked Marks what he had meant years earlier, when he wrote in an affidavit that he had “directed” the eyewitness to Wilson’s photo.
“Just exactly what it says,” Marks responded, saying he asked her to look at a picture of Wilson and asked something along the lines of “What about him?”
Marks said he intentionally made a record of having directed the witness, as he figured it would be an issue requiring litigation before trial. In the affidavit attached to an arrest warrant, Marks wrote that he had included photographs of Wilson and another man, who was initially arrested as a co-defendant. While looking at the photos, Marks wrote, the witness “hesitated” over a photo of the other man, saying she would need to see a live lineup.
“She then eliminated several other photos,” Marks wrote, adding that he then “directed her attention to Wilson’s photo, which she then identified with 80% confidence.”
During an interview this week, Marks stressed that a judge ultimately signed the arrest warrant and that his affidavit was in the case documents he gave the prosecutor.
“This isn’t something that was buried,” he said.
Wilson’s lawsuit contends that the defense never got a copy of Marks’ affidavit, but the retired detective said he “can’t conceive” of that notion, saying he recalled one of Wilson’s attorneys coming to the police station with a portable device to make copies of sections of the case evidence. (The attorney, Jim Barnes, doesn’t specifically recall the case, but said neither he nor his office had portable copiers during the 1980s, according to the lawsuit.)
During the 2016 interview with the Loyola lawyers, Marks said that at a subsequent live lineup, Bishop recalled that she knew Wilson’s face from before — she had babysat for his daughter, records show.
Was it possible, the prosecutor asked, that the witness identified Wilson because she’d recognized him from earlier?
“Is it a possibility?” Marks said. “Yeah.”
“Were you concerned about that?” the prosecutor asked.
“I wouldn’t say that I was concerned,” Marks said.
When Wilson got out of prison, he felt joy but also crushing sadness and fear. He thought about the people he’d lost while incarcerated — a sister, his eldest grandson — and decided to move to St. Louis to be near his 98-year-old mother. He applied for jobs, but didn’t hear back.
When he finally got work mopping floors at a chemical lab, he often showed up to his shift two hours early. He wanted his co-workers to see him — if anyone came asking, he’d have an alibi. But he recently slipped on the job and hurt his lower back, so he has missed a lot of work for doctor’s appointments, Wilson said.
His adult daughter, who lives in Michigan, calls 10 to 12 times a day to check in.
The hardest part, Wilson says, is the debilitating fear that authorities will target him again. He often wakes up in a panic in the middle of the night.
On a recent afternoon — when it was 85 degrees outside and he had a full tank of gas in his car — he told himself he really should be outside at the park with his girlfriend. Instead, he holed up inside. He doesn’t run errands when it’s dark outside, and the sight of a patrol car sparks a panic attack — his heart races and his breathing gets short.
“That fear will always be in me,” he says. “I don’t want be on the other end of that again. I just can’t. I don’t have 32 more years to give.”
He thinks about Marks every day — and about the other people the detective investigated. During his long career with the LAPD, Marks was listed as a possible witness in at least 40 criminal cases, according to the district attorney’s office.
“He gets a pension,” Wilson said, “and the best I could get was a job mopping floors?”
For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber
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