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How Wrongful Arrests Based on AI Derailed 3 Men's Lives

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Defense attorneys and legal experts say some people wrongly accused by facial recognition agree to plea deals, suggesting wrongful arrests are more common than generally realized.

Credit: Getty Images

Robert Williams was doing yard work with his family one afternoon last August when his daughter Julia said they needed a family meeting immediately. Once everyone was inside the house, the 7-year-old girl closed all the blinds and curtains and then told her sister and parents that she'd figured it out: Wooly Willy, a character from her toy, had stolen the watches that got her dad arrested.

"She was like 'We need to get to the bottom of this,'" her mother Melissa says. More recently, Melissa says, Julia has said she believes people who wear shirts that say "Detroit" represent the people who arrested her father.

Williams was arrested in January 2020 for allegedly stealing five watches from a Shinola store in Detroit, after he was wrongfully identified by facial recognition software. He was among the first people known to be wrongfully accused because of the software, which is an increasingly common tool for police. Michael Oliver and Nijeer Parks were wrongly arrested in 2019 after also being misidentified by facial recognition technology.

All three cases were eventually dropped, but in Parks' case, that took almost a year, including 10 days in jail. The cases shared some commonalities. Oliver and Parks both had prior criminal records. Oliver and Williams were investigated by the same Detroit detective. All three men are fathers, and all three are Black. "It's not a coincidence," Parks says.

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