Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Nicknames for Bank Robbers

This morning's Seattle Times has a piece about how Catchy nicknames help FBI snare bank robbers.

Because robbers move so quickly, typically spending less than 20 seconds inside a bank, it's not uncommon for the FBI to receive shoddy surveillance video, vague descriptions and little physical evidence, [FBI Special Agent Larry] Carr said. By having nicknames, he hopes descriptive details will stick with people so that, if they see an alleged bank robber, they can identify them.
Examples in the article included "Attila the Bun," "the Button-Up Bandit," and "the Uncle Fester Bandit."

Naturally I wondered about the legal angle. Is there ever an allegation that a suspect was prejudiced by the name? Does a nickname taint the defendant with uncharged crimes? Does the media attention a nickname brings prejudice the jury? What if the nickname ("the Redbeard Bandit") draws attention to one physical characteristic that results in a mistaken identification?

I did just a little research and didn't find much -- no ALR annotations, no law review articles. (There was an ALR annotation about whether it's prejudicial for a prosecutor to call a defendant names at trial "this monster," "a nightmare," etc. That's not the same.) Most of the cases with robber! within 3 words of nickname involve nicknames used by the robbers, not assigned by the FBI. For instance, a teller hears one robber call the other "Snake," and one piece of evidence against the defendant is that many of his buddies call him "Snake." United State v. Henderson, 241 F.3d 638 (9th Cir. 2000) upheld the conviction of "the Wig Bandit," but didn't discuss the name. (By the way, the defendant was identified by someone who saw "the Wig Bandit" featured on "America's Most Wanted.")

Since I didn't find anything in my quick search, maybe this isn't an issue. Any thoughts?

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Graphic by mw.

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