RIO DE JANEIRO – In 2016, Tiago Vianna Gomes answered a friend’s call to help tow a car. He didn’t know that simple act would upend his life and land him in jail.
The car turned out to be stolen. Gomes was arrested, and police took his mugshot. Although he was released and later found innocent, the police kept his picture in their records.
That blurry photo led Gomes, 28, to be accused of eight additional crimes, even though in each case he proved that he was not near the crime scene and he did not match the suspect description. Before every arrest, witnesses identified him only by his mugshot and he was charged without any corroborating evidence.
Two years after his initial arrest, he was detained again and ended up serving eight months on another theft charge at the Cotrim Neto Prison outside of Rio de Janeiro.
“My worst days were when my mother said she couldn't visit me,” Gomes told VICE News. “And I missed my kids so much.”
Between 2012 and 2020, at least 90 Brazilians were arrested after being mistakenly identified based on their mugshots alone. On average, they spent nine months in pre-trial detention. Rio’s Office of Public Defenders pooled its data in 2020 and found that 83 percent of suspects who were unjustly arrested based entirely on photo recognition were Black.
A judge exonerated Gomes and he was released on January 15, 2019, returning home to the Chatuba neighborhood of Rio. But, again, his mugshot remained in the police album – even though he had not been convicted of any crime. The photo was shown to witnesses and victims of crimes as they tried to help police identify criminals.
“I feel angry because only God knows the time I wasted and how my family suffered,” Gomes told VICE News.
On his third arrest, the police showed his mugshot to a witness who accused him of stealing a motorcycle. He served two weeks at the Ary Franco Prison in March of 2020 and was then granted house arrest because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
He was eventually found innocent of the charge that prompted his third arrest by a judge on the Superior Court, but police kept showing his mugshot to witnesses of crimes.
“When cops showed pictures to victims, they put two light-skinned people with him in the center. If the thief was dark skinned, the victims would surely select him,” Gomes’s mother, Ivonice, told VICE News.
Eyewitnesses are notoriously unreliable, especially when asked to identify persons of color, studies have shown.
Rafaela Garcez, a public defender fighting to clear Gomes’ name and the names of others like him, said that police routinely show photos of suspects to witnesses even if those pictured don’t have a criminal record.
“We’ve created a system of eyewitness accounts that's completely flawed,” Garcez told VICE News.
“Look at all the risks we are making people face just because of a photo. It's something that is the exact opposite of justice.”
Article 226 of Brazil’s code of criminal procedure forbids the use of just photo recognition to identify suspects. Procedural rules also require eyewitnesses to pick out a suspect from a lineup of people who look similar.
That didn’t happen in the case of Vando Dos Santos Bernardo. The musician was accused of murder and robbery after police took his photo from Facebook and showed it to a witness.
His girlfriend, unaware of the killing, had found the victim’s phone on the street and brought it home. Bernando put his sim card in the phone and the police traced it to him.
A witness hesitated before picking Bernardo out in a lineup. Bernardo, 35, wears glasses and the man the witness saw did not. Still, they identified him and he served 31 months in the Evaristo De Moraes Prison before being able to prove his innocence.
“They judge us for our skin color and because we are poor.” Bernardo told VICE News. “If he's dark then he's guilty.”
Judge Schietti of the country’s Superior Court has called on police to respect Article 226 and not rely solely on photo recognition as sufficient evidence to charge someone with a crime.
Rio’s police chief, Allan Turnowiski, insisted in a statement that police “do not admit photographic recognition as the only evidence in investigations to ask for the arrest of suspects.”
In September, Gomes, with the help of his public defender Garcez, was finally able to have his mugshot removed from the police identification book.
He was recently cleared of all charges but he says his experience of being innocent in prison still haunts him and his three kids.
“Every parent dreams to give the best life to their kids. But I also dream of walking around with my head up high.”