The Problems With Courtroom Identification

 Posted on August 10,2017 in Criminal Law

courtroom, Hartford defense lawyerIt is one of the basic tenets of American criminal law: a person charged with a crime has the right to face his or her accuser. In a criminal case, the accuser is usually the state or the federal government but the so-called “confrontation clause” of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees a criminal suspect the right to confront any witnesses against him or her as well. The provision was intended to prevent a defendant from being convicted on the basis of testimony or written evidence without the ability to challenge the witnesses’ statements in front of a jury.

When a witness appears to testify during a trial, prosecutors also have the opportunity to question him or her. Depending on the situation and the type of witness, it has long been a common practice for prosecutors to ask a witness if the person who committed the crime in question is present in the courtroom. The witness then points at the defendant and says something to the effect of “That’s him [or her].” It is intended to be a dramatic moment that hits home with the jurors.

Questions of Reliability

There are several problems with this centuries-old strategy. First, eyewitnesses are far from perfect. Study after study has shown that a person can talk himself or herself into remembering something he or she never experienced. The courtroom identification strategy is also believed by many experts to be overly suggestive. They contend that it contributes very little to the actual evidence being presented. In addition, there is only one defendant in most criminal proceedings, and a witness who is unsure is likely to point to the defendant simply because the defendant is the most obvious—and expected—answer.

Courtroom identification is powerful, without question. However, groups that study false convictions estimate that nearly three-quarters of all wrongful convictions include mistaken eyewitness testimony—with more than half of those using incorrect courtroom identification.

Making Changes

Over the last five years or so, efforts by the non-profit group The Innocence Project have been focused on improving law enforcement and prosecution procedures and reducing wrongful convictions. One of the group’s goals has been to restrict in-court identifications. Connecticut was among the first states to respond. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has also placed limitations on the practice, and Colorado may be doing so in the near the future.

Last year, the Connecticut Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively prohibited witnesses from identifying a defendant in court for the first time. Prosecutors may ask a witness to identify the person believed to be the perpetrator of the crime, but only if the witness already knew the defendant before trial or previously identified him or her in an out-of-court method such as a suspect lineup. An in-court identification is also permitted if the identity of the perpetrator is not in question.

Seek Help With Your Case

Experts agree that changing a long-standing tradition can be difficult, especially in the practice of the law, but doing so may be necessary, especially if it results in fewer wrongful convictions. If you have been accused of a crime that you did not commit, you need aggressive representation from a lawyer who will fight to protect your rights. Contact an experienced Connecticut criminal defense attorney at Woolf Law Firm, LLC today. Call 860-290-8690 for a free consultation.


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