Robbery suspect Markis Smith goes to trial later this month. The victim identified him as the perpetrator after having seen the suspect, who was wearing a hat, for around ten seconds. In light of this fact, Smith’s attorney requested a special jury instruction on witness identification. This will help jurors consider whether the witness had “adequate opportunity” and the “capacity” to properly identify the perpetrator, as well as whether fear, stress, or other distractions might have affected the eyewitness’s ability to make an accurate identification.
Markis Smith’s attorney, Roger Weeden, wants jurors to be wary of eyewitness identifications, especially from victims, as they may occur under stress and therefore be less accurate. He also wants jurors to consider that an eyewitness can be mistaken through no fault of his own. Weeden’s motion states: “You don’t have to believe that the identification witness was lying or not sincere to find the defendant not guilty. It is enough that you conclude that the witness was mistaken in his/her belief or impression.”
Numerous DNA exonerations have exposed how unreliable eyewitness identification can be, and and the requested jury instruction can help to reduce false convictions, especially in the absence of standardized policies regarding lineup procedures and witness identifications. When cases rely mostly on eyewitness testimony, a false identification can send an innocent person to prison. Special jury instructions are an underutilized option that may lessen the chance of a false conviction.
The judge in Smith’s case, Walter Komanski, has not yet ruled on whether to allow the motion but is said to be “intrigued” by the idea. A defendant appearing in front of Komanski in 2007 was convicted based on three witnesses’ false identification. She served three months before charges against her were dropped. Komanski said, “If a jury instruction will aid and assist that process, should we not be looking to come up with something that might help the jury further analyze such eyewitness identification?”
Komanski will rule on the jury-instruction motion by the time Smith’s trial begins, on February 21.