August 25, 2011 / 11:40 PM / 8 years ago

NJ decision on witness identification could have broad impact

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New Jersey Supreme Court decision ordering sweeping changes to how the state uses witness identification in criminal cases could have a broad impact and trigger legal challenges.

The state supreme court decision calls on New Jersey courts to take measures to address doubts surrounding the reliability of witnesses who identify criminal defendants, highlighting a growing awareness of flaws with relying on memory.

Judges must now consider several factors when determining witness reliability such as stress and timing of a positive identification, as well as race, the court said in a move hailed by criminal justice groups like the Innocence Project.

The decision could provide a roadmap for other states wrestling with the same issues, including concerns that misidentification of defendants can sometimes cause wrongful convictions.

Though it has no binding influence outside of New Jersey, other state courts could take the opinion into consideration, said Kip Cornwell, a law professor at Seton Hall University in Newark.

“Because this is a thorough well-regarded opinion, I strongly suspect that this will be scrutinized by other states going forward,” Cornwell said.

States including California and New Mexico have grappled with reforming their witness identification guidelines as the advent of new social science data has prompted criticism from criminal defense bar on misidentifications.

New York, too, is considering reform. A task force in New York convened by New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman made several recommendations earlier this year to police groups and prosecutors about witness identification, as well as to judges about juror instructions.

While those recommendations don’t have the force of law, the task force will likely meet with legislators about the topic in the fall. The state’s district attorneys association also developed new guidelines about photo identifications and lineups in 2010.

The decision will likely trigger a host of litigation as trial and appellate courts sort out how to implement the Supreme Court’s mandate, said David Kiefer, a former prosecutor in New Jersey who is now in private practice.

Wednesday’s opinion stemmed from a case in which witness testimony was the primary evidence in a homicide trial. Before the trial, the witness said a detective had been “nudging” him to identify the defendant.

The trial court allowed the witness identification to be admitted at trial, and while the defendant was acquitted of the most serious murder charges, he was convicted of reckless manslaughter, aggravated assault and weapons possessions charges. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Some victims’ rights advocates said an increase in pretrial hearings raises the prospect of further clogging the state’s courts, from complex criminal matters to lower-level offenses such as drunk-driving.

Reporting by Carlyn Kolker, additional reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Eileen Daspin, Barbara Goldberg and Cynthia Johnston

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