Paul V. Coates -- Confidential File, May 7, 1959
An Eyewitness Can Be High ExecutionerThere's a man in our society I fear.
He's an honest man, conscientious and law-abiding. His intentions are the best.
But because of -- rather than in spite of -- his zeal to be a good citizen, he can destroy the lives of innocent men. Maim them. Even murder them.
Murder them nice and clean and legal.
Our police and courts call him "the eyewitness."
And too often, I'm afraid, they put a little too much faith in the accuracy of his vision.
In the last week, two examples of the destruction that the combination of good intentions and bad memories can cause have hit the news.
A couple of days ago Robert J. Coronado, 27, was freed from Chino Prison after serving six months of a five-year-to-life sentence for a crime he didn't commit.
He was sent there on the testimony of two eyewitnesses who positively identified him as the man who held up a West 3rd street cafe.
Only a freak of fate kept him from serving a full term in prison. The man who committed the robbery happened to be sent to the same prison as Coronado (Doing time for a different crime), happened to meet him in the shower room one day and tell him he did it, and happened to be a decent-enough individual to repeat his confession to the police, even though it meant implicating a friend.
A few days before Coronado was released, Mirror News reporter Jack Searles broke the story of Mrs. Leona Palumbo, a 33-year-old Hawthorne housewife.
Eyewitnesses in two separate armed robberies had identified her as the "gun-moll" involved.
She was sitting in County Jail awaiting prosecution when a minor miracle happened, (A miracle activated by some fine detective work and dedication to justice by Det. Sgt. Charles McPherson of the Lynwood Police Department.)
The real gun-moll was tracked down and arrested. Her confession freed Mrs. Palumbo after the housewife had to spend 33 days in jail, living with the very realistic fear that the honest mistakes of some honest people might send her to prison for the rest of her life.
It would be nice to believe that these two cases of mistaken identification were isolated ones.
But they're not.
The Mirror News reference library has a special file labeled "mistaken identity cases." And it's a fat one.
All local cases. All within the last 10 years.
There's one, dated Sept 11, 1958:
A former Los Angeles police officer, age 37, was positively identified by two victims of kidnap and rape as their assailant.
One of the victims was 17, the other, 22.
The crimes were committed months apart.
Either of them could have sent the ex-policeman to the gas chamber. He had no alibi strong enough to convince a jury, caught up in the emotion of listening to two young women describe their terrifying experiences, that he was innocent. That he was the wrong man.
While be was awaiting trial, the real rapist struck again. But that time he was caught, and he confessed to the other two crimes.
He Who Was About to Die
If he hadn't been caught, I wonder if the state of California might have convicted and executed an innocent man.
And I wonder how many men and women are in prison today, found guilty of crimes they didn't commit, because of the emotion blurred vision of eyewitnesses and the jurors who heard their stories, and because of some highly unprofessional tactics used by some police investigators in "helping" witnesses pick out the "right" suspects.
Tomorrow, I'll examine why "positive" identification so often are wrong ones, and how the power of subtle suggestions by policemen can influence a witness to make a wrong identification.