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Law School Case Brief

State v. Henderson - 208 N.J. 208, 27 A.3d 872 (2011)

Rule:

The Supreme Court of New Jersey concludes that the current standard for assessing eyewitness identification evidence does not fully meet its goals. It does not offer an adequate measure for reliability or sufficiently deter inappropriate police conduct. It also overstates the jury's inherent ability to evaluate evidence offered by eyewitnesses who honestly believe their testimony is accurate. Two principal steps are needed to remedy those concerns. First, when defendants can show some evidence of suggestiveness, all relevant system and estimator variables should be explored at pretrial hearings. A trial court can end the hearing at any time, however, if the court concludes from the testimony that the defendant's threshold allegation of suggestiveness is groundless. Otherwise, the trial judge should weigh both sets of variables to decide if the evidence is admissible.

Facts:

Rodney Harper was shot to death in an apartment early in the morning on Jan. 1, 2003. James Womble was present when two men forcefully entered the apartment, seeking to collect money from Harper. Womble knew one of the men, co-defendant, George Clark, but the other man was a stranger. According to the State's evidence, Clark shot Harper while the stranger held a gun on Womble. Thirteen days later, police showed Wobble a photo array from which he identified defendant Larry R. Henderson as the stranger. At trial in New Jersey state court, the trial court conducted a pre-trial Wade hearing to determine the admissibility of Womble's identification of Henderson. That hearing revealed that the identification procedure was presided over by a detective who was not a primary investigator in the case. During the Wade hearing, Womble testified that he felt as though the detective was "nudging" him to choose Henderson's photo, and that there was pressure to make a choice. At the conclusion of the hearing, the trial court found that the officers' behavior was not impermissibly suggestive and ruled that evidence of the identification was admissible. The trial court applied the two-part Manson/Madison test to evaluate the admissibility of the eyewitness identification, and found that there was nothing in the case that was improper, and certainly nothing that was so suggestive as to result in a substantial likelihood of misidentification. The jury convicted Henderson of reckless manslaughter, aggravated assault, and weapons charges. The appellate division reversed, presuming that the identification procedure in the case was impermissibly suggestive under the first prong of the Manson/Madison test. The court remanded for a new Wade hearing to determine whether the identification was nonetheless reliable under the test's second prong. The state supreme court granted the State's petition for certification, and thereafter the court remanded the case and appointed a judge to preside at the remand hearing as a Special Master to evaluate the scientific and other evidence about eyewitness identifications.

Issue:

Did the appellate court err in presuming that the identification procedure in the present case was impermissibly suggestive?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of New Jersey adopted portions of the Special Master's report and held that the current legal standard for assessing eyewitness identification evidence set forth in Manson/Madison required revision because it did not offer an adequate measure for reliability, did not sufficiently deter inappropriate police conduct, and overstated the jury's ability to evaluate identification evidence. As such, the court held that two modifications were required: First, when defendants can show some evidence of suggestiveness, all relevant system and estimator variables should be explored at pretrial hearings. Second, the court system must develop enhanced jury charges on eyewitness identification. In applying those standards to the case at bar, the Court held that Henderson was entitled to a new pretrial hearing consistent with the new standards to determine the admissibility of the eyewitness evidence introduced at his trial. The court found it clear that during the lineup, the investigating officers intervened and conveyed a message that there was an identification to be made and encouraged the witness to make one. Thus, the trial court had to determine on remand whether the identification should have been admitted at Henderson's trial.

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