Houman Fakhimi

Witness Identification in Santa Ana Cases Must be Scrutinized

The recent case of a store clerk getting pistol-whipped during a robbery in Anaheim brings up a critical issue in our criminal justice system -- the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Police are still searching for suspects in that case of robbery in Anaheim, but investigators will no doubt rely heavily upon the words of the victims as well as grainy video tape from the store, if available.

California courts must take note of what's going on in New Jersey, where authorities have changed the rules when it comes to how much credibility is given to eyewitness testimony in criminal cases. Justices for the New Jersey Supreme Court recently passed rules that would allow for a hearing and a specific jury instruction if witness credibility issues are brought up.

An experienced Anaheim criminal defense attorney will be able to identify any problems or inaccuracies in a witness's testimony. This could result in convincing jurors or a judge that the witness shouldn't be trusted, but not always. Further rules would allow defendants to get a fair trial where others before them have been locked up based on poor witness testimony.

This issue is especially pertinent after Georgia officials recently executed convicted murderer Troy Davis after seven out of nine witnesses changed or recanted their testimony that he killed a police officer there. Despite pleas from throughout the world, Georgia officials denied his pardon and executed him.

According to The Orange County Register, police responded to a liquor store one night that had been robbed. As police arrived, they searched for two men who ran out of the store, but couldn't find them.

Two clerks said two men walked in and one jumped over the counter, demanded money and hit the clerk in the head with a gun. The other clerk ran to help, but was also hit in the head. After taking money, the two ran out of the store. The police provided vague descriptions to the public of two 20- to 30-year-old men.

The problem is that not only were both men struck in the head, which could affect their memories, but they were also terrorized, which can lead them to false memories or tainted accounts of what happened. Obviously, they have a motivation to see someone arrested and the longer there isn't an arrest, the more pressure they may put on police or police on them.

At least New Jersey officials are taking notice. The New York Times reports that judges there must hold a hearing if questions are brought up about a witness's credibility or shaky testimony and a number of factors must be considered. Police influence, whether they were taking drugs or alcohol at the time they saw an event unfold, the time of day, distance between them and the suspect, and other factors must be considered.

Judges may also be able to give jurors a specific instruction -- even in the middle of trial -- that would tell them the dangers of witness credibility and the factors that could cause a witness to be untruthful or unreliable.

Justices wrote that there is a "troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications." The newspaper speculates that New Jersey's decision could influence other states as it has been a trendsetter for criminal justice issues. Let's hope California court officials are taking notice.