Editorial: Doppelganger case is a cautionary tale

A Kansas City man served 17 years in prison for a robbery he probably didn’t commit.

Richard Anthony Jones can never recover the lost time that should have been spent helping raise his children, working to support his family and simply living as a free man. This is an irreversible affront to justice and fairness, despite a Johnson County judge’s decision to vacate the sentence and release Jones this month.

Financial compensation can’t right this injustice either, even if damages are eventually awarded.

A tragic combination of ineffective police photo lineup procedures, too much reliance on eyewitness accounts and doubt about Jones’ alibi all led to his wrongful conviction.

Jones had a doppelganger, a man known as “Ricky” who had uncannily similar facial features. But Kansas City, Kan., police put Jones’ photo in a compilation of six suspects that the victim and witnesses viewed in the 1999 case.

The lineup all but pointed to Jones as the assailant in a robbery in the parking lot of a Roeland Park Wal-Mart. The other men bore virtually no resemblance to the description of a man with his hair pulled back, light skin tone and possibly African-American or Latino.

This case highlights an important truth: Eyewitness misidentification is a leading cause of the wrong person being convicted. Stress alone can significantly affect how people recall events.

This tragedy can’t be viewed as a one-off or a unique combination of missteps and confusion involving two men with similar features.

Police can inadvertently steer victims and witnesses to pinpoint one suspect over another simply by presenting a photo lineup in a certain way. No ill intent is necessary if police are relying on ineffective procedures.

Law enforcement, bolstered by scientific studies, has changed many of its practices since Jones was wrongfully convicted. But any vestige of these shoddy practices is unacceptable.

Kansas passed a law last year requiring law enforcement to adopt a detailed written policy for witness lineups. But the law merely says that departments should have a set of suggested procedures in place. The statute is missing some much needed teeth. Missouri lawmakers considered similar legislation but got no traction.

The Midwest Innocence Project deserves praise — not only for its work to vacate Jones’ sentence, but also for its efforts to explain the scientific evidence showing why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable and to press for more effective police techniques.

Without constant vigilance, the worst-case scenario can occur: An innocent person spends years in prison.