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The moment of truth in a courtroom may be unreliable

The practice of courtroom identifications, where the jury watches the witness dramatically identify the alleged criminal, has been a long-standing challenge for criminal defense in Maryland and across the country. However, this practice is being criticized as being unreliable and outdated.

Researchers have long criticized the validity of general eyewitness identifications. The Insurance Project, the legal organization that led DNA exonerations, began questioning this practice five years ago. It found that 71 percent of wrongful convictions involved an erroneous eyewitness identification in and outside the courtroom. Half of those wrong identifications took place in court.

Insurance Project attorneys claim that in-court identification occurring for the first time multiplies the risk of a wrong criminal conviction. The drama associated with pointing to the defendant can sometimes unjustifiably overwhelm the shortcomings of a weak prosecution. The defendant is also the most obvious choice, even for forgetful witnesses, because they sit next to the defense attorney or are the only person who matches the witness' description.

There are also concerns that witnesses made these identifications in court for the first time and did not previously identify the defendant from a police lineup or photographic array. Some courtroom identifications occurred weeks or years after the crime.

States may guarantee rights that exceed federal rights afforded to all citizens. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that identification evidence may not be excluded because it might be wrong. Additionally, a prosecutor argued that all courtroom evidence has a possibility of error that is restricted through cross-examination and jury instructions.

An attorney can provide a defense at trial that questions the validity of weak evidence. A criminal defense lawyer can also help ensure that rights are protected.

Source: The Marshall Project, "When a witness confronts the accused: Is a courtroom I.D. fair?" Marella Gayla, July 13, 2017

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