While North Carolina sits out Hurricane Irene, we will turn our attention to the problems with eyewitness identification. Anyone who watches television is familiar with the scenario: The victim’s neighbor is on the stand. The prosecutor asks if she saw the man who assaulted the victim. She points at the defendant and cries, “Yes! That’s him!”
Chances are, though, that it wasn’t the defendant at all. More and more research has shown that eyewitness identifications are not 100 percent reliable.
North Carolina tackled some of the deficiencies with the process in 2008, when the General Assembly passed the Eyewitness Identification Reform Act. The statute lays out specific procedures for law enforcement to follow when conducting a photo or live lineup. The objective was to avoid the kind of situation that led to a recent New Jersey Supreme Court decision.
In that case, the eyewitness’s testimony was the prosecution’s primary evidence against the defendant. Before the trial, though, the eyewitness said that a detective had “nudged” him to indicate the defendant in the lineup. The trial court allowed the testimony.
The defendant was acquitted of murder charges, but he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for reckless manslaughter, aggravated assault and weapons possession charges. The defendant appealed.
At the appellate level, the trial court’s decision was reversed and remanded. The state appealed. The Supreme Court actually sent the case to a special master, directing that the master “evaluate the scientific and other evidence” regarding eyewitness identifications. The special master reported back to the court, and this decision followed. It is 142 pages long.
There are implications for North Carolina. We’ll get into that in our next post.
Source: New York Times, “In New Jersey, Rules Are Changed on Witness IDs,” Benjamin Weiser, Aug. 24, 2011