New Jersey v. Henderson Shows Us Why Jacksonville Criminal Witnesses Aren’t Reliable

A recent case out of New Jersey draws parallels to the problems facing defendants in cases of assault or robbery in Jacksonville.

Eye witnesses are inherently problematic because they often tell police they saw many things that lead to a person being convicted. But they often don’t say that it was second- or third-hand knowledge they are passing off as fact. Other times, witnesses have a fuzzy recollection of what happened, but the police trust in them anyway, which leads to an improper arrest.
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Jacksonville criminal defense lawyers have seen these problems time and time again. As the Jacksonville Criminal Defense Attorney Blog has reported on before, New Jersey officials recently allowed for defendants to have a pre-trial hearing in order to point out inconsistencies with witness testimony and causes — such as police misconduct, the time of day, distance from the crime or influence of drugs and alcohol.

The New Jersey Supreme Court also has given judges the power to tell jurors — even in the middle of trial — about why a witness misidentification may occur. Essentially, warning jurors about problems associated with eyewitness testimony.

We remain hopeful that Florida justices listen to the rumblings going on up North. Justices there wrote that there is a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” which is definitely true. Many defendants in Jacksonville and elsewhere are sent to prison on the back of witness testimony that is far from rock-solid.

New Jersey v. Henderson highlights why New Jersey officials made the changes — to hold state prosecutors accountable for their actions of bringing in weak witnesses in order to secure convictions.

In this case, a man was shot to death in 2003 at an apartment complex. A witness was present when two men forced their way into the apartment. One of them he knew, the other he didn’t.

According to the state, the man identified by the witness shot the victim while the stranger held a gun to the witness in a small, dark hallway. Nearly two weeks later, police showed the witness a photo lineup from which he identified Henderson as the man who held the gun on him during the murder.

Based on that testimony, the “stranger” was convicted of reckless manslaughter, aggravated assault and weapons charges. he was sentenced to 11 years in prison, plus parole for another six years.

An appeals court reversed, saying that the identification of the suspect from a photo lineup was “suggestive” by police. The appeals court sent the case back to the trial judge to determine whether the identification may have satisfied the remainder of the test.

After the New Jersey Supreme Court made its recent ruling about eyewitness identification and the problems the state has with misidentification, the case was sent back to the trial level for a new pre-trial hearing under the state’s new guidelines.

While it appears on its face Henderson shouldn’t have been convicted in the first place — by a witness who didn’t identify him for two weeks after the fact, and possibly after being nudged by police officers to pick Henderson from a photo lineup — it’s good to see the system working.

Many would argue that the man deserves to be convicted. But supporters of the criminal justice system would say that the system worked because although he was wrongly convicted, there is a checks and balances system in place that caught the problems.

If you need a criminal defense attorney in Jacksonville or the surrounding area, call Mussallem and Associate, PA at 904-365-5200 for a free consultation.

More Blog Entries:

Sheriff’s Deputies Use Community Snitches to Arrest Jacksonville Man on Murder Charges: September 12, 2011