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Colloff et al. in Psychological Science. 2016.

How Unfair Police Lineups Land the Wrong People Behind Bars

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Colloff et al. in Psychological Science. 2016.

Our lives are shaped by myriad invisible forces, from gravity and magnetism to our own subconscious biases. They’re also shaped, often undetectably, by the thoughts and behaviors of the people around us. For example: Researchers say eyewitnesses shown unfair lineups are more likely to choose the person police want them to choose, even when that person is innocent. The research was published in the journal Psychological Science. 

Gone are the days of old-fashioned police lineups, in which a single suspect and a handful of decoys would shuffle into a room and glower straight ahead, left, and right. Today’s witnesses are seated not before one-way mirrors but at computers displaying the mug shots of potential culprits. One of the photos contains the police's prime suspect, who may or may not be the person the eyewitness saw. The other photo subjects are innocent. Will the eyewitness be able to pick the right person? That depends on a few things: their memory, the presence of the culprit in the lineup, and whether or not the police want them to.

Studies have shown that a witness is more likely to select the photo of a person with a distinguishing characteristic if they’re the only one with that feature. Consequently, police can pretty easily and consistently nudge witnesses to pick their bearded prime suspect by including them, beard and all, in an array of beardless decoys. For obvious reasons, this is called an unfair lineup, and it can help send the wrong person to prison.

Researchers at the University of Warwick and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice wanted to take a closer look at the psychology of these unfair lineups. They created four 30-second videos. Each video depicted a white man with some distinguishing feature committing a different crime (carjacking, graffiti, mugging, and theft). 

A test audience watched the videos over and over and answered questions about the culprit’s sex, hair color, eye color, weight, and so on. The responses for each culprit were averaged into a single description. Next, the researchers pulled 160 real mug shots matching these descriptions from the Florida Department of Corrections Inmate Database—40 images per culprit. Within the context of this experiment, all of these men were innocent. Their photos would become the decoys, or foils. All of the photos, including those of the culprits, were Photoshopped to show the men wearing plain black t-shirts. 

The researchers recruited almost 9000 people online for a study that they said was about personality and perception (psychology studies frequently misdirect participants’ attention in order to get the most natural responses). Each participant was told to watch one of the four crime videos. Afterward, they completed three psychological questionnaires and a word puzzle. The test results themselves were busy work; the researchers just wanted to keep the participants busy for a few minutes to create a break between the ‘crime’ and the lineup. 

The participants were asked how confident they were in their ability to pick the culprit out of a lineup. Then the lineup itself began. 

Each participant was shown six photos: the culprit and five foils. Some of the lineups were unfair and included the culprit, complete with a distinguishing mark, and five blank-faced foils. In others, the fair lineups, all six photos had been digitally manipulated to look the same way. Some people saw six men with black eyes or beards. Others saw six photos with pixelated blurs or black boxes covering what would have been a distinguishing feature. (These are all techniques used by real police departments in England and Wales.) 

Then there were the people whose lineups were completely culprit-free. Like the culprit groups, some of these all-decoy arrays were unfair, showing five plain photos and one person with distinguishing features. The difference was that all of these men were innocent. 

Once in front of the photo array, the participants were told that the culprit might or might not have been present. They then selected the person they believed to be their culprit, or “Not Present” if they felt the criminal’s photo was missing. Finally, they were asked again how confident they felt in their choices.  

Unsurprisingly, the authors say, unfair lineups were very effective at getting witnesses to select the desired target. But they were also good at encouraging people to feel good about blaming innocent men; the volunteers shown unfair lineups were more confident than others, even when they were wrong. 

University of Warwick researcher Melissa Colloff is lead author on the study. She says an unfair lineup is unfair not only to suspects but also to witnesses. “It could impair their ability to distinguish between guilty and innocent suspects and distort their ability to judge the trustworthiness of their identification decision," she said in a press statement. 

“That's because they weren't really using their memory of the culprit's face,” she said. They were remembering the beard, or the scar, or the black eye. If a witness goes to a police station and says they saw a crime perpetrated by a person with a beard, the police may begin to suspect a person with a beard, even if that person is innocent. And if that person becomes a prime suspect and is included in an unfair lineup, the same witness might quite confidently say, “Yes, Officer. That’s him.” 

The authors suggest two techniques for correcting the issue. First, they say, police should encourage witnesses to take their time and not answer until they’re sure. Second, of course, they should give witnesses a real chance to identify not just the suspect in a crime, but its culprit.  

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Warner Bros.
10 Hush-Hush Facts About L.A. Confidential
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Warner Bros.

On this day 20 years ago, a rising star director, a writer who thought he’d never get the gig, and a remarkable cast got together to make a film about the corrupt underbelly of 1950s Los Angeles, and the men and women who littered its landscape. This was L.A. Confidential, a film so complex that its creator (legendary crime writer James Ellroy) thought it was “unadaptable.” In the end, it was one of the most acclaimed movies of the 1990s, a film noir classic that made its leading actors into even bigger stars, and which remains an instantly watchable masterpiece to this day. Here are 10 facts about how it got made.


Writer-director Curtis Hanson had been a longtime James Ellroy fan when he finally read L.A. Confidential, and the characters in that particular Ellroy novel really spoke to him, so he began working on a script. Meanwhile, Brian Helgeland—originally contracted to write an unproduced Viking film for Warner Bros.—was also a huge Ellroy fan, and lobbied hard for the studio to give him the scripting job. When he learned that Hanson already had it, the two met, and bonded over their mutual admiration of Ellroy’s prose. Their passion for the material was clear, but it took two years to get the script done, with a number of obstacles.

"He would turn down other jobs; I would be doing drafts for free,” Helgeland said. “Whenever there was a day when I didn't want to get up anymore, Curtis tipped the bed and rolled me out on the floor."


When executive producer David Wolper first read Ellroy’s novel, he saw the dense, complex story as the perfect fodder for a television miniseries, and was promptly turned down by all the major networks at the time.


Though Wolper was intrigued by the idea of telling the story onscreen, Ellroy and his agent laughed at the thought. The author felt his massive book would never fit on any screen.

“It was big, it was bad, it was bereft of sympathetic characters,” Ellroy said. “It was unconstrainable, uncontainable, and unadaptable.”


To get the film made, Hanson had to convince New Regency Pictures head Arnon Milchan that it was worth producing. To do this, he essentially put together a collage of classic Los Angeles imagery, from memorable locations to movie stars, including the famous image of Robert Mitchum leaving jail after his arrest for using marijuana.

"Now you've seen the image of L.A. that was sold to get everybody to come here. Let's peel back the image and see where our characters live,” Hanson said.

Milchan was sold.


Though the other stars of the film were largely discoveries of the moment, Kevin Spacey was apparently someone Hanson wanted to work with for years. Spacey described Hanson as a director “who’d been trying for years and years and years to get me cast in films he made, and the studio always rejected me.” After Spacey won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects, Hanson called the actor and said, “I think I’ve got the role, and I think they’re not gonna say no this time.”


Warner Bros.

Though he cast relative unknowns in Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce, Hanson wanted an American movie star for the role of Jack Vincennes, and decided on Kevin Spacey. In an effort to convince Spacey to take the role, Hanson invited him to dine at L.A.’s famous Formosa Cafe (where scenes in the film are actually set). While at the cafe, Spacey asked a vital question:

“If it was really 1952, and you were really making this movie, who would you cast as Jack Vincennes?” Hanson said “Dean Martin.”

At that point, Spacey looked up at the gallery of movie star photos which line the cafe, and realized Martin’s photo was right above him.

“To this day, I don’t know whether he sat us in that booth on purpose, but there was Dino looking down at me,” Spacey said.

After his meeting with Hanson, Spacey watched Martin’s performances in Some Came Running (1958) and Rio Bravo (1959), and realized that both films featured characters who mask vulnerability with a layer of cool. That was the genesis of Jack Vincennes.


To help set the tone for his period drama, Hanson began selecting music of the early 1950s even before filming began, so he could play it on set as the actors went to work. Among his most interesting choices: When Jack Vincennes sits in a bar, staring at the money he’s just been bribed with, Dean Martin’s “Powder Your Face With Sunshine (Smile! Smile! Smile!)” plays, a reference to both the character’s melancholy, and to Spacey and Hanson’s decision to base the character on Martin.


To emphasize realism and period accuracy, cinematographer Dante Spinotti thought less about the moving image, and more about still photographs. In particular, he used photographer Robert Frank’s 1958 collection "The Americans" as a tool, and relied less on artificial light and more on environmental light sources like desk lamps.

"I tried to compose shots as if I were using a still camera,” Spinotti said. “I was constantly asking myself, 'Where would I be if I were holding a Leica?' This is one reason I suggested shooting in the Super 35 widescreen format; I wanted to use spherical lenses, which for me have a look and feel similar to still-photo work.”


Warner Bros.

[SPOILER ALERT] In the film, Jack Vincennes, Ed Exley, and Bud White are all chasing a mysterious crime lord known as “Rollo Tomasi,” who turns out to be their own LAPD colleague, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell). Though Vincennes, Exley, and White are all native to Ellroy’s novel, the Tomasi name is entirely an invention of the film.


To adapt L.A. Confidential for the screen, Hanson and Helgeland condensed Ellroy’s original novel, boiling the story down to a three-person narrative and ditching other subplots so they could get to the heart of the three cops at the center of the movie. Ellroy, in the end, was pleased with their choices.

“They preserved the basic integrity of the book and its main theme, which is that everything in Los Angeles during this era of boosterism and yahooism was two-sided and two-faced and put out for cosmetic purposes,” Ellroy said. “The script is very much about the [characters'] evolution as men and their lives of duress. Brian and Curtis took a work of fiction that had eight plotlines, reduced those to three, and retained the dramatic force of three men working out their destiny. I've long held that hard-boiled crime fiction is the history of bad white men doing bad things in the name of authority. They stated that case plain.”

Additional Sources:
Inside the Actors Studio: Kevin Spacey (2000)

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retro-wrestling, eBay
Pop Culture
The Time a Wrestling Fan Tried to Shoot Bobby Heenan in the Ring
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retro-wrestling, eBay

For a man who didn't wrestle much, Bobby “The Brain” Heenan wound up becoming more famous than a lot of the men flexing in the squared circle. The onscreen manager of several notable grapplers, including André the Giant and “Ravishing” Rick Rude, Heenan died on Sunday at the age of 73. His passing has led to several tributes recalling his memorable moments, from dressing up in a weasel suit to hosting a short-lived talk show on TNT.

While Heenan’s “heel” persona was considered great entertainment, there was a night back in 1975 when he did his job a little too well. As a result, an irate fan tried to assassinate him in the ring.

According to the Chicago Tribune, Heenan was appearing at the International Amphitheater in Chicago as part of the now-defunct AWA wrestling promotion when his performance began to grate on the nerves of an unnamed attendee seated on the floor. Eyewitnesses described the man as friendly up until wrestlers Verne Gagne and Nick Bockwinkel started their bout with Heenan at ringside in Bockwinkel’s corner.

“Get Heenan out of there,” the fan screamed, possibly concerned his character would interfere in a fair contest. Heenan, known as “Pretty Boy” at the time, began to distract the referee, awarding an advantage to his wrestler. When the official began waving his arms to signal Heenan to stop interrupting, the fan apparently took it as the match being over and awarded in Bockwinkel’s favor. He drew a gun and began firing.

The man got off two shots, hitting three bystanders with one bullet and two more with the other before running out of the arena. (No fatalities were reported.) Security swarmed the scene, getting medical attention for the injured and escorting both Heenan and the wrestlers to the back.

According to Heenan, the shooter was never identified by anyone, and he was brazen enough to continue attending wrestling cards at the arena. ("Chicago really took that 'no snitching' thing to heart back then," according to Uproxx.)

Heenan went on to spend another 30 years in the business getting yelled at and hit with chairs, but was never again forced to dodge a bullet.


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