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SJC Announces New Standard for Admission of Identification Testimony

posse-713337-mIn Commonwealth v. Crayton and Commonwealth v. Collins, both issued on December 17, 2014, the Supreme Judicial Court established a new standard for the admission of in-court identifications of the defendant by eyewitnesses where the witnesses had not previously participated in an out-of-court identification procedure and/or the prior out of court identification was equivocal.

The facts in Crayton are as follows: two students studying in a public library claimed that a man seated near them at one of the library’s computers was looking at nude images of children. Prior to the trial, neither the police nor the prosecutor asked these eyewitnesses to participate in an identification procedure to determine whether they could identify the man they had seen at the computer – they were never shown a photographic array or asked to view a lineup. The first time they were asked to identify the man was on the witness stand at trial, which was more than two years after the first and only time they had seen him. At the trial, the prosecutor asked them whether they saw the man from the library in the courtroom and each of the witnesses identified the defendant.

The SJC held that where a prosecutor asks a witness at trial whether he or she can identify the perpetrator of the crime in the courtroom and the defendant is sitting at counsel’s table, the in-court identification is comparable in its suggestiveness to a show-up identification. The Court went on to state that in-court identifications may be more suggestive than show-ups because “the eyewitness knows that the defendant has been charged and is being tried for that crime. The presence of the defendant in the courtroom is likely to be understood by the eyewitness as confirmation that the prosecutor, as a result of the criminal investigation, believes that the defendant is the person that the eyewitness saw commit the crime. Under such circumstances, eyewitnesses may identify the defendant out of reliance on the prosecutor and in conformity with what is expected of them rather than because their memory is reliable.” In order to counter the risk of misidentification in such circumstances, the Court announced the following new rule based on common law principles: “where an eyewitness has not participated before trial in an identification procedure, we shall treat the in-court identification [of the defendant] as an in-court show-up, and shall admit it in evidence only where there is ‘good reason’ for its admission.” The Court stated that the new rule will apply prospectively.

In Collins, the SJC addressed a similar issue: the admissibility of an eyewitness’s in-court identification of the defendant where the witness was previously shown a photographic array that included the defendant’s photograph, but did not unequivocally identify the defendant as the perpetrator. The facts in Collins are as follows: two victims were shot inside of an apartment. One of the victim’s girlfriend’s was in the apartment at the time of the shooting and caught two brief glimpses of the perpetrator. In a pretrial identification procedure, the girlfriend “failed to make a positive identification of the defendant, although she did identify his photograph as one of two that “looked like the person she saw” in the apartment. At trial, the girlfriend made an in-court identification of the defendant as the shooter.

The SJC held that the requirement set forth in Crayton – that an in-court identification shall be admitted in evidence only where the Commonwealth has demonstrated “good reason” for its admission – would be applicable to circumstances such as those in the Collins case, where the eyewitness participated in an inconclusive pretrial identification procedure. The Court reasoned that “the danger of unfairness arising from an in-court show-up in these circumstances is considerable. Where eyewitnesses before trial were unable to make a positive identification of the defendant or lacked confidence in their identification, they are likely to regard the defendant’s prosecution as confirmation that the defendant is the ‘right’ person and, as a result, may develop an artificially inflated level of confidence in their in-court identification.” Again, the Court stated that the rule shall be applied prospectively.

Mistaken identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. Therefore, the potential suggestiveness of any identification procedure and resulting identification testimony is an enormous concern for the criminal justice community. These two decisions bring us one step closer to preventing injustices resulting from mistaken identification. If you or a loved is charged in a case where identification is an issue, you will need an experienced attorney who is up to date on the state of the law and who can make sure that your rights are protected. Attorney Daniel Cappetta has handled numerous misidentification cases and can help you get the best outcome possible for your charges. Call him for a free consultation today.