Thursday, August 25, 2011

New Jersey Supreme Court Makes Ground Breaking Decision Regarding Eye Witness Identification Testimony.

On August 24, 2011, two cases that will have national implications, the New Jersey Supreme Court in the cases, State v. Larry R. Henderson, and State v. Cecelia X. Chen, held that eyewitness identification is inherently unreliable, and the court issued sweeping reforms to protect defendants from wrongful convictions.

Prominent legal scholars and law professors have held that the New Jersey Supreme Court is the most prominent and trailblazing State Supreme Court in the United States in the area of criminal law and procedure, and these two cases again confirm that fact according to the New York Times. (Headline Article, August 25, 2011)  More than seventy-five percent of the convictions overturned by the Innocence Project by DNA evidence involved erroneous eyewitness identification.

Because of the strong possibility of mistaken identification the Supreme Court has ordered that the Committee on Model Jury Charges for New Jersey modify the existing charges to educate jurors that factors such as, stress on the eyewitness, distance and lighting, memory decay, speed of identification, witness characteristics, length of interaction, the presence of visible weapons, cross-racial identification, the eyewitnesses interaction with non-State actors, or interaction with State actor, among other things can seriously effect whether the eyewitness is making an accurate identification.

As the Supreme Court wrote, "That evidence offers convincing proof that the current test for evaluating the trustworthiness of eyewitness identification should be revised ... 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 court in its 134 page decision also rejects the United States Supreme Court formal for eyewitness identification under the seminal federal case Manson v. Brathwaite, 432 U.S. 98 (1977), and affords New Jersey criminal defendants greater protection.  Again, this is not the first time that our State court has given greater protection to its citizens under New Jersey law.

Because the case only applies to future cases, those which are tried 30 days after the revised model jury charges are approved by the Supreme Court it is essential that any pending trials in which eyewitness identification is a key issue, that those trials be stayed.  This criminal defense attorney would argue that the new jury instructions are of such importance that any trial that went forward without these new instructions would be a denial of the defendant’s Fourteenth Amendment to procedural due process and would amount to ineffective assistance of counsel.

Thank your New Jersey Supreme Court for again showing the rest nation the way in the protecting the rights of the accused, and seeing to it that a defendant has a fair and impartial trial.

Law Office of Vincent J. Sanzone, Jr.

Elizabeth, N.J.
Dated: August 25, 2011

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