FAIRBANKS — An expert witness who testified 16 years ago that it would be nearly impossible to recognize someone at more than 500 feet at night was back in court Tuesday to say he can now say that more definitively.
University of Washington psychology professor Geoffrey Loftus brought a heavily distorted photograph of actor George Clooney to the witness stand Tuesday.
The image, he said, represents the level of detail you could see in a sharp photograph if you move it 550 feet away. Nighttime conditions, he said, would increase the distortion caused by distance by a power of three.
Identification at this distance is important because long-distance witness identification played a key role in the 1999 convictions of George Frese, Kevin Pease, Marvin Roberts and Eugene Vent.
Three separate juries convicted these men of the 1997 murder of Fairbanks teenager John Hartman. The men, known by supporters as the Fairbanks Four, are seeking a declaration of “actual innocence.”
Besides Roberts, who was paroled this summer, they’re also seeking an immediate release from jail.
Attorneys for the four are presenting evidence to support their case in a month-long evidentiary hearing before Superior Court Judge Paul Lyle on the fifth floor of the Rabinowitz Courthouse.
Witness Arlo Olson provided the key eyewitness testimony in 1999.
Olson testified at the three original trials that from outside the Eagle Hall on First Avenue he saw four men beat and rob a man named Franklin Dayton about 550 feet from where he was standing.
Olson’s account was the only testimony that placed the four convicted killers together on the night Hartman was found dead. In the years since the trials, Olson has gone back and forth about whether he told the truth in that testimony.
Loftus has been an expert witness in about 290 criminal trials, among them the 1999 trial of Pease and Roberts. He testified Tuesday that the Pease and Roberts trial led him to realize that there’s very little research that quantitatively shows how distance distorts vision.
“This case has probably has had a more profound and focused input on my research than has any case I have ever testified in,” he said.
At the 1999 trail, his testimony was based on “common sense,” he said. Now it’s based on his empirical research. The research led to a 2005 article in scholarly experimental psychology journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. A computer program created by the research produced the George Clooney image he brought to court Tuesday.
Loftus’ testimony faced several challenges from Assistant Attorney General Bob Linton, one of three state prosecutors working to uphold the convictions of Frese, Pease, Roberts and Vent.
Loftus’ statements about eyewitness limitations focus far too much on identifying faces and not on the human ability to recognize people by the rest of their bodies, Linton said.
In his trial testimony, Olson explicitly said he didn’t recognize the faces because that would have required binoculars. He was able to identify them because he’d seem them earlier in the night.
“With respect to builds, with respect to hands, with respect to arm lengths — in terms of what most people can perceive about those aspects of a person under normal circumstances — it’s not going to uniquely identify who somebody is,” Loftus said in response to this criticism.
Over repeated relevance objections from opposing counsel Bill Oberly, Linton also questioned Loftus for about an hour about details from the original Pease and Robert trials. Loftus said he didn’t remember much about parts of the case that didn’t deal with the eyewitness testimony. He also said that his testimony is about typical human vision. He doesn’t know if Olson’s eyes are above average.
Linton said he took this line of questioning because he wanted to show Loftus is biased and was inclined to overlook other evidence that ties Frese, Pease Roberts and Vent to the crime.
Earlier in the hearing, Linton asked Loftus how many times he’s been an expert for prosecutors. Among the 290 cases, he’s only been an expert witness for prosecutors once, Loftus said.
Old witnesses back on stand
The day’s witness list had some other familiar names from the 1999 trials, among them assault victim Franklin Dayton and alibi witness Joseph Shank.
Dayton testified again that he never got a look at the people who knocked him to the ground and pulled $15 from his pocket on Oct. 10, 1997.
Shank said he can account for Vent and Pease’s location at the time Hartman was killed.
Lyle listened to Dayton, Shank and another witness Tuesday but hasn’t yet decided whether he will consider their testimony as part of his rulings. He said he wants to create a thorough record in the case so that future appellate judges can better decide whether he made good rulings about what evidence to consider.
Prosecutors have made blanket objections to the inclusion of former witnesses, arguing they’ve already been heard from at the original trials. Attorneys for the petitioners say the evidence from these witnesses should be re-evaluated as part of their case.
The hearing continues this morning at 8:30 a.m..
Contact outdoors editor Sam Friedman at 459-7545. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMoutdoors.