The crime rate is down in New York City. That's a happy statistic, except for one man, Robert Weston, who makes his living finding "fillers," "dummies," "decoys" or "known innocents" for police lineups around town.
The 45-year-old straddles two worlds, as The New York Times reports. He's well known in the South Bronx public housing projects, where occupants hassle him for a filler gig, and cozy with the New York Police Department, which posts his number in its squad rooms. Fillers get $10 for the work. Weston gets $10 for casting them.
Eyewitness identification in police lineups has long been one of the most powerful pieces of evidence in courtrooms. But a 2009 report by the Innocence Project showed that 242 people had been exonerated by DNA testing in the previous two decades, serving an average of 12 years in prison, and three quarters were misidentified by witnesses.
A large part of this is that the police officer running the lineup may subtly, and unintentionally, nudge the witness into choosing the arrested suspect. Critics of lineup procedures recommend a "double blind" technique, where the policeman in the room is unfamiliar with the case, and has no idea who the suspect is.
To avoid misidentification, it's also important that the fillers share distinctive features with the subject, specifically sex, age, race and facial hair. Weston has fillers on-call for "black male," "black female," "Hispanic male" and "Hispanic female," but of the over 100 potential decoys on his cellphone, none of them is white.
Weston is an entrepreneur. In the past, police officers would assemble lineups from the in-house lockup, homeless shelters and street corners. It could be tedious and time-consuming. Weston saw a business opportunity.
Fifteen years ago a police officer stopped him while he was eating lunch and asked if he would be part of a lineup. It would be great if he could bring some friends too.
He's now been in more lineups than he can count, and started filling up to four a day for the NYPD. These days, Weston is always glued to his Bluetooth earpiece.
The job, however, isn't particularly lucrative, bringing in an annual salary of $14,600, if he managed to fill four Bronx lineups every day of the year. But $10 here and there can be useful cash, and neighbors are always bothering Weston for a job. "I can't even play basketball on the courts or sit here and drink a beer," Weston told the The New York Times. "People are always asking me if there is a lineup."
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