Thursday, August 25, 2011

Trailblazing change in eyewitness ID rules


NJ ruling may reduce wrongful convictions; 
other jurisdictions likely to follow suit
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As today's New York Times reports:
The New Jersey Supreme Court, acknowledging a “"troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications," issued sweeping new rules on Wednesday making it easier for defendants to challenge such evidence in criminal cases.

The court said that whenever a defendant presents evidence that a witness's identification of a suspect was influenced, by the police, for instance, a judge must hold a hearing to consider a broad range of issues. These could include police behavior, but also factors like lighting, the time that had elapsed since the crime or whether the victim felt stress at the time of the identification. 

When such disputed evidence is admitted, the court said, the judge must give detailed explanations to jurors, even in the middle of a trial, on influences that could heighten the risk of misidentification. In the past, judges held hearings on such matters, but they were far more limited. 

The decision applies only in New Jersey, but is likely to have considerable impact nationally. The state's highest court has long been considered a trailblazer in criminal law, and New Jersey has already been a leader in establishing guidelines on how judges should handle such testimony.
Stuart J. Rabner, the court’s chief justice, wrote in a unanimous 134-page decision that the test for reliability of eyewitness testimony, as set out by the United States Supreme Court 34 years ago, should be revised.

The new rules come at a time of increased scrutiny of the eyewitness identification issue among lawyers, law enforcement officers and the scientific community. The opinion noted that task forces have been formed to recommend or put into effect new procedures to improve reliability. 

The State Supreme Court's ruling was seen as significant because it was based in part on an exhaustive study of the scientific research on eyewitness identification, led by a special master, a retired judge, who held hearings and led a review of the literature on the issue. The special master, Geoffrey Gaulkin, estimated that more than 2,000 studies related to the subject had been published since the Supreme Court’s original 1977 decision, the court noted. 

"Study after study revealed a troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications," Chief Justice Rabner wrote. "From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. 

"Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country."

The decision listed more than a dozen factors that judges should consider in evaluating the reliability of a witness’s identification, including whether a weapon was visible during a crime of short duration, the amount of time the witness had to observe the event, how close the witness was to the suspect, whether the witness was under the influence of alcohol or drugs, whether the witness was identifying someone of a different race and the length of time that had elapsed between the crime and the identification.
The Times report continues HERE.
Hat tip: Jane


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