Will Pennsylvania or the United States Supreme Court Require More Stringent Safeguards in Eyewitness Identification Cases?

Filed under: Criminal Law, Death Penalty Cases Tags: by Steven F. Fairlie @ November 4, 2011

The issue of eyewitness identification has been a hot topic in Pennsylvania’s legal community lately. New Jersey’s Supreme Court recently ruled that several changes need to be made to their eyewitness identification procedures to ensure that innocent individuals are not wrongly convicted. Three quarters of the individuals who have been exonerated by DNA evidence were convicted at least in part by mistaken eyewitness identifications. The Pennsylvania Advisory Committee on Wrongful Convictions’ recent report recognized the unfortunate, but important role that eyewitness identification plays in wrongful convictions and gave many recommendations to remedy the situation. While it may be some time before Pennsylvania law enforcement implements all of the suggestions of the advisory committee, the issue of eyewitness identifications continues to be a pressing topic.

The United States Supreme Court has recognized the importance of this topic and has decided to hear its first case on the issue in nearly fifty years. In the case Perry v. New Hampshire, the eyewitness claimed to have seen the suspect talking to police and recognized the suspect as the same person she had seen break into a car. Despite the importance of eyewitness identification, the Supreme Court is only examining a narrow question in this case. The Court has limited the scope of its review to whether a judge should suppress an eyewitness identification any time that it is made under the various circumstances that unfairly suggest identification of a suspect or if the judge should only suppress identification when the actions or responses of law enforcement lead to those circumstances. This case is a step towards greater protection for suspects who have been wrongly accused. It remains to be seen whether the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will follow this trend.

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