NJ court orders changes to witness ID evidence
The new rules, once they are devised, will apply to future cases and two cases that prompted the ruling
By Beth DeFalco
TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey's highest court ordered changes Wednesday to the way eyewitness identifications are used in court, saying the current system is not reliable enough, fails to deter police misconduct and overstates jurors' ability to evaluate the evidence.
Currently, a defendant has the burden of proving there was undue suggestion during the identification process. That won't change. But the court has ordered that when a defendant can show some evidence of suggestiveness by police, a pretrial hearing must be held to explore it.
The court also requires a system be developed to better explain to juries the potential flaws with eyewitness identifications.
The case is being closely watched because New Jersey has long been at the forefront in identification standards. In 2001, the state became the first to establish guidelines for lineups designed to prevent mistaken suspect identifications. Other states followed suit.
The new rules, once they are devised, will apply to future cases and two cases that prompted the ruling.
In one case, an eyewitness lineup that included Larry Henderson of Camden led to his conviction in 2004 on manslaughter charges. Henderson's attorneys argued he was misidentified after police did not follow proper identification guidelines.
Henderson's case prompted the New Jersey Supreme Court to order a review of the procedures used by police when they ask witnesses to identify suspects.
A test used by courts in 48 states and the federal system to assess the reliability of witness identification is flawed and inadequate, the yearlong review found.
Barry Scheck, co-founder of the Innocence Project, a New York legal center specializing in overturning wrongful convictions, and one of several attorneys for O.J. Simpson during his 1995 murder trial, presented testimony during the hearings that called for stricter standards.
The Supreme Court's ultimate ruling is expected to influence courts in places besides New Jersey because the review was so comprehensive, Scheck has said.
Nationally, more than two-thirds of the 254 prisoners who have been exonerated by DNA since 1989 were sent to prison based on witness misidentification, according to the Innocence Project. It's the most common element in a wrongful conviction, the center said.
Three of the five exoneration cases in New Jersey involved misidentification, according to the Innocence Project.
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