How a Facial Recognition Mismatch Can Ruin Your Life
It was just after sundown when a man knocked on Steve Talley’s door in south Denver. The man claimed to have hit Talley’s silver Jeep Cherokee and asked him to assess the damage. So Talley, wearing boxers and a tank top, went outside to take a look.
Seconds later, he was knocked to the pavement outside his house. Flash bang grenades detonated, temporarily blinding and deafening him. Three men dressed in black jackets, goggles, and helmets repeatedly hit him with batons and the butts of their guns. He remembers one of the men telling him, “So you like to fuck with my brothers in blue!” while another stood on his face and cracked two of his teeth. “You’ve got the wrong guy,” he remembers shouting. “You guys are crazy.”
Talley was driven to a Denver detention center, where he was booked for two bank robberies — the first on May 14 and the second on September 5, 2014, 10 days before his arrest — and for assaulting an officer during the second robbery.
Surveillance footage from a robbery that occurred on May 14, 2014, at a U.S. Bank in Denver, Colorado.
After surveillance camera images of the September robbery were publicly distributed, three of Talley’s acquaintances called in with tips to the police hotline, noting similarities between Talley’s appearance and the robber’s. A detective then showed photographs of both the May and September robber to Talley’s estranged ex-wife. “That is Steven,” she told him. “That is my ex-husband.”
The identifications justified Talley’s detention, even though he claimed he had been at work as a financial adviser for Transamerica Capital when the May robbery took place. Talley said he was held for nearly two months in a maximum security pod and was released only after his public defender obtained his employer’s surveillance records. In a time-stamped audio recording from 11:12 a.m. on the day of the May robbery, Talley could be heard at his desk trying to sell mutual funds to a potential client. Nine miles north, a white male wearing a black baseball cap, red athletic jacket, white shorts, and black sneakers entered a U.S. Bank, where he threatened the teller, hid $2,475 in his shirt, wrestled with an off-duty officer, and jumped down a flight of 10 stairs to the parking lot. At the same time as Talley was trying to close a deal, parking lot surveillance tapes show the robber tumbling with the officer, escaping his grip, and jogging away.
Talley was released in November, and the charges were apparently dropped. In the months that followed, a series of medical exams revealed that Talley had sustained several injuries on the night of his arrest, including a broken sternum, several broken teeth, four ruptured disks, blood clots in his right leg, nerve damage in his right ankle, and a possibly fractured penis. “I didn’t even know you could break a penis,” he told me.
But while voice recordings had exculpated Talley, an appeal to other, seemingly objective markers of his identity would soon be used to implicate him again. Nearly a year after his release from jail, Talley was arrested a second time on December 10, 2015, and charged with the aggravated bank robbery that had taken place the morning of September 5, 2014.
This time around, Denver prosecutors obtained what looked like damning forensic evidence of their own. The detective assigned to Talley’s case, Jeffery Hart, had requested that an FBI facial examiner manually compare stills from the banks’ grainy surveillance videos to several pictures of Talley — a tall, broad-shouldered white man with short blond hair, mild blue eyes, and a square jaw.
The FBI analysis concluded that Talley’s face did not match the May robber’s, but that he and the September robber shared multiple corresponding characteristics, including the shape of the head, chin, jaw line, mole marks, and ear features. “The questioned individual depicted” in the September images, the report concluded, “appears to be Talley.”
Except that it wasn’t. Again.
A comparison chart displaying photos of Steve Talley alongside still images from footage of the suspect in the September 2014 robbery.
Photo: Federal Bureau of Investigation
Steve Talley is hardly the first person to be arrested for the errors of a forensic evaluation. More than half of the exonerations analyzed by the Innocence Project have involved cases where forensic experts cited flawed or exaggerated evidence, and in 2009 a landmark paper by the National Academy of Sciences stated what many had long suspected: Apart from DNA testing, no other forensic method could reliably and consistently “demonstrate a connection between evidence and a specific individual or source.”
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