Thursday, November 03, 2011

Supreme Court Weighs Eyewitness Identifications

Adam Liptak of the New York Times provides a useful account of oral argument before the Supreme Court about constitutional limitations on the admissibility of eyewitness identifications (for the prosecution) in criminal trials.


Some of the more interesting comments by the Justices:
“Why is unreliable eyewitness identification any different from unreliable anything else?” (Justice Scalia)
“Eyewitness testimony is not the only kind of testimony which people can do studies on and find that it’s more unreliable than you would think,” Justice Kagan said.
Justice Ginsburg:
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg also seemed skeptical about the need for a special constitutional rule.
“What about all the other safeguards that you have?” she asked. “You can ask the judge to tell the jury, ‘Be careful; eyewitness testimony is often unreliable.’ You can point that out in cross-examination.”
“You can say something about it in your summation to the jury,” she went on, adding that the rules of evidence, as opposed to the Constitution, also allow the exclusion of some kinds of unreliable evidence.
“Why aren’t all those safeguards enough?” Justice Ginsburg asked.
General:
The justices also mused about other forms of evidence and information, including fingerprints, DNA, crystal balls, tea leaves and information obtained through torture. But they seemed persuaded by a lawyer for the federal government, Nicole A. Saharsky, who argued in support of state prosecutors in the case.
“Taking the question of reliability away from the jury,” Ms. Saharsky said, “would be a very big change in our system.”
Justice Kagan:
The primary point of excluding eyewitness identifications that were prompted by the police, said Michael A. Delaney, New Hampshire’s attorney general, was to deter police misconduct rather than to address unreliable evidence more generally.
Justice Kagan disagreed. “Well, it’s both,” she said. “The court has certainly talked about deterrence, but the court also has very substantial discussions in all of these opinions about reliability. And from the criminal defendant’s point of view, it doesn’t really much matter whether the unreliability is caused by police conduct or by something else.”


 
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