The Massachusetts Appeals Court today affirmed the rape convictions for a man who worked for the Boston Fire Department for more than two decades and once served as the department’s deputy chief. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Pearson.
Following his trial in Brockton Superior Court, the defendant was convicted of five counts of aggravated rape, four counts of kidnapping, two counts of indecent assault and battery, four counts of impersonating a police officer, and one count of armed assault with intent to rape. His problems began in 2008, when the Brockton police arrested a prostitute. The prostitute told the police that a man posing as a state trooper had raped her at gunpoint the previous week. About seven weeks later, the police were able to find and stop the defendant’s car after receiving his license plate number. An officer handcuffed the defendant and asked if he had a gun in the car. The defendant said no, and told the police they could search his car and trunk. The officers found a firearm trigger lock in his trunk and a handheld radio in the passenger compartment.
After additional officers arrived on the scene, they decided to conduct a so-called showup identification procedure, which is when a single suspect stands alone and the victim either confirms or denies that he is the perpetrator. The defendant’s handcuffs were removed and he was ordered to stand against a building. The prostitute was driven to the scene and when she saw the defendant she said she was “100 percent sure” he was her rapist. After the defendant was arrested and his picture was shown on television, four additional prostitutes reported to the police that they had also been raped by him. After the defendant was convicted, he appealed on numerous grounds, most notably related to the showup identification.
The defendant argued that the showup identification was unduly suggestive. The Appeals Court acknowledged that showup identifications are disfavored because of their inherent suggestiveness. However, if good cause exists, showup identifications can be admissible in court. The defendant argued that because 53 days had elapsed between the rape and the day he was subject to the showup identification procedure, its results should not have been shared with the jury. The Appeals Court disagreed, holding that the seriousness of the crime, concerns for public safety, and the need for efficient police investigation justified the showup identification. Additionally, because the victim had observed the defendant from a close distance and for an extended period of time during the rape, she was in a good position to make an accurate identification of her assailant.
Because the Court did not find any other errors in the trial, it affirmed the defendant’s convictions. The defendant was sentenced to 18-20 years in state prison.
While most people agree that showup identifications are inherently suggestive, courts are generally reluctant to suppress their results. It’s a shame, because there is a relatively easy alternative. In this case, the police could have brought the defendant back to the station, photographed him, and arranged a photo lineup (where the defendant’s photograph and the photographs of seven other men who look like him would be shown to the victim for identification). A photo lineup, if done properly, does not pose the same danger as a showup identification when it comes to false identifications. The Supreme Judicial Court recently issued an excellent decision regarding the improper suggestiveness of an in-court identification. Hopefully, the SJC will review the role of showup identifications in police investigations and rule that their results have no business being shared with juries.