Wednesday, August 24, 2011

SCOTUS to Hear Eyewitness ID Case

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an eyewitness identification case for the first time in 34 years. The Court last heard a case reviewing the reliability of eyewitnesses in 1977.

In Mason v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98 (1977) the Court established a framework for addressing claims that an eyewitness identification was made under such suggestive circumstances that due process requires its exclusion from evidence. The Court held that reliability—probable accuracy—“is the linchpin in determining the admissibility of identification testimony.”

According to Adam Liptak of the New York Times, Every year, more than 75,000 eyewitnesses identify suspects in criminal investigations. Those identifications are wrong about a third of the time, a pile of studies suggest.

Mistaken identifications lead to wrongful convictions. The Times reports of the first 250 DNA exonerations, 190 involved eyewitnesses who were wrong, as documented in “Convicting the Innocent,” a recent book by Brandon L. Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

According to the Times, many of those witnesses were as certain as they were wrong. “There is absolutely no question in my mind,” said one. Another was “120 percent” sure. A third said, “That is one face I will never forget.” A fourth allowed for a glimmer of doubt: “This is the man, or it is his twin brother.”

The case before the Court is Perry v. New Hampshire. The issue relates to the New Hampshire Supreme Court imposing an additional condition—that state actors improperly caused an identification to be made under suggestive circumstances—before any due process inquiry can be made pursuant to Mason.

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