KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Dr. Nancy Franklin, an eyewitness memory and identification expert, testified at Kevin Strickland's evidentiary hearing on Tuesday.
The hearing could result in Strickland's release from prison after 43 years for a 1978 triple murder he says he did not commit.
Franklin testified Tuesday about the sole eyewitness testimony from that night, which played a critical role in Strickland's 1979 conviction. She said in her opinion, the identification was "highly unreliable."
She has yet to be cross examined by the Missouri attorney general's office, which is acting on behalf of the state in the hearing. That will take place when court resumes Wednesday morning.
Cynthia Douglas was the lone survivor of the 1978 shooting, and her identification of Strickland as the man who wielded the shotgun that night was pivotal in sending him to prison.
She later said she had picked the wrong man, according to other witnesses' testimony thus far.
Franklin, who has been qualified as an expert witness in close to 70 cases, noted that Strickland and Douglas were not strangers — a crucial fact in her field of study.
According to Franklin, there are marked differences in how accurately people are able to identify familiar faces versus those of strangers.
Familiar faces, Franklin said, are almost always correctly identified under a broad range of circumstances.
Strangers' faces, on the other hand, have a higher rate of misidentification even under optimal conditions.
That's important because, since Strickland was not a stranger to Douglas, she should have been able to recognize him easily, yet he was not among the defendants she could immediately name.
"He was a known person to her. She saw the perpetrator sufficiently that night, presumably. That glance that she described having gotten of that perpetrator — more than once she described it — should have been enough for her to be able to identify Mr. Strickland, if it was him," Franklin said.
Testimony from the original trials shows her initial description of the man with the weapon was sparse and even described by police as "sketchy," Franklin said.
Franklin said Doulgas named Strickland only after her sister's boyfriend, Randy Harris, suggested he could be involved, and after a police lineup — both of which contribute to Franklin's belief Douglas was relying on after-the-fact influences and not consulting her memory to make the ID.
Douglas herself reported she didn't know that night who the man with the gun was, according to Franklin, but later came to identify Strickland.
“Her statements about coming to report that it was Kevin Strickland, I found quite telling. She said that she told Randy Harris that ‘it must have been Kevin,’ ‘it had to have been Kevin.’ These aren’t statements of memory. These are statements of ‘oh yeah, that makes sense,'" Franklin said. "At trial, she said ‘I know it for a fact,’ rather than ‘I recognized him at the time of the murders.’”
Franklin also conducted a lineup fairness assessment for Strickland's case, a test which helped her determine how likely Strickland was to be picked out of the lineup.
Franklin explained the lineup is given to a group of participants with no knowledge of the crime, and they are asked to pick out a person based on the witness' (in this case, Douglas') description.
Twenty-three of 32 participants in her assessment picked Strickland out the lineup — an outcome Franklin said proved the lineup was unfairly skewed toward Strickland.
The lineup selection was poor, Franklin said, compared to established standards.
A good lineup, according to Franklin, should include six people total: the suspect and five "fillers." The fillers should closely match the description so the suspect does not stand out.
Franklin opined Strickland's lineup was unfair, as it contained only four people, two of who had marked differences from Douglas' description.
Ultimately, Franklin said she believes Douglas' identification is not reliable.
“The reliability of her identification of him is... highly unreliable. It’s very likely to have been the product of post-event suggestion, particularly by Randy Harris, and it took multiple tries on his part to bring her to that point,” Franklin said.
Franklin went on to say the totality of the eyewitness evidence in this case is "exculpatory."