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Cops & Courts
East Bay Express: False witness
On the afternoon of June 29, 1998, Trina Gomez and Maximilian Patlan were closing a branch of Fidelity Financial Services in Fullerton, California, when two men knocked on the door. They asked if they could make a payment, so Patlan let them into the bank. Once inside, one of the men punched Patlan in the face and ordered him to lie on the ground. The other man pulled out a shotgun and forced Gomez to collect all of the available cash. Minutes later, the two thieves walked out of Fidelity with more than $5,400 in cash and personal checks. The armed robbery and assault happened so quickly that Gomez and Patlan later had difficulty identifying the perpetrators.
A few months later, police arrested Bernard Teamer as the getaway driver in the robbery after a witness identified him. Police, however, had no leads on the two men who actually robbed the bank. So, they began to investigate all of Teamer's acquaintances and neighbors who fit the description that Gomez and Patlan had provided. The investigators eventually whittled the group down to eleven suspects.
Police used photos of these eleven people, along with so-called "filler" photos of 43 other men who were not believed to be involved in the crime, to assemble nine photo lineups for Gomez and Patlan to examine. The witnesses made nearly a dozen tentative identifications, but ultimately decided that Guy Miles, a 34-year-old black man, was one of the robbers.
The rest of the case against Miles, however, was flimsy. Six people provided alibis for him, swearing that when the robbery took place he was at his home in Las Vegas — 250 miles from Fullerton. There was no physical evidence, such as fingerprints or DNA, linking him to the crime. And although Miles and Teamer had been members of the same street gang, they both said they had only met once — about ten years before the Fidelity robbery.
The photo lineups that police put together also contained several major flaws. Only a handful of the filler photos matched the robbers' general description, making it easier for Gomez and Patlan to select a suspect who looked like one of the men who robbed the bank. And the lineup test was administered by the investigating officer, who knew the identities of the eleven suspects, and thus could have influenced Gomez and Patlan to pick out at least one of them.
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