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Supreme Court rejects special review of eyewitness testimony

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that the Constitution does not require a special judicial inquiry into the potential unreliability of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases when there has been no police misconduct.

By a 8-1 vote, the high court sided with New Hampshire and Obama administration attorneys, who argued that existing safeguards were sufficient to prevent unreliable testimony.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the court majority that the U.S. Constitution's due process protections do not require a judicial inquiry into the reliability of an eyewitness identification in cases when the police do not improperly suggest to the eyewitness that the suspect was guilty.

The Supreme Court's ruling came at a time of renewed debate about the trustworthiness of eyewitness accounts and concerns mistaken eyewitness identifications can lead to wrongful convictions.

A recent book by University of Virginia law professor Brandon Garrett found that 190 of the first 250 people exonerated by DNA evidence had been convicted because of mistaken eyewitness testimony.

The ruling was a defeat for Barion Perry, who was convicted of theft for breaking into a car in 2008 at an apartment building parking lot in Nashua, New Hampshire. He was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison.

Nubia Blandon, who lived in a fourth-floor apartment, told police she saw Perry take things from the car. She described the suspect as a "tall black man," but gave no other details. She later could not pick him out of a police photo lineup.

Perry's lawyer argued that Blandon should have been excluded from testifying at trial because her observations were unreliable.

But the justices disagreed and upheld a New Hampshire Supreme Court ruling that allowed the eyewitness testimony in the case.

Ginsburg refused to extend judicial review to all eyewitness identifications made under suggestive circumstances if the police are not involved.

A judicial inquiry into the reliability of an eyewitness identification has been required in the past only when the police unnecessarily suggested to the eyewitness that a certain suspect was guilty or engaged in similar misconduct.

She said no improper police conduct tainted the identification in Perry's case.

"We do not doubt either the fallibility or the importance of eyewitness evidence generally," Ginsburg said. "In our system of justice, however, the jury, not the judge, ordinarily determines the trustworthiness of evidence."

She added: "Safeguards built into our adversary system can serve to inhibit juries from placing undue weight on eyewitness and other testimony of questionable reliability."

Absent improper police conduct, existing safeguards are sufficient, she concluded in summarizing the opinion from the bench.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the lone dissenter.

The Supreme Court case is Perry v. New Hampshire, No. 10-8974.

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