Eyewitness Testimony in Massachusetts after Commonwealth v. Crayton

In Commonwealth v. Crayton, 470 Mass. 228 (2014), the SJC issued an important decision regarding in court identification testimony. The SJC held that if there is no prior identification of the defendant by the witness prior to trial, then an identification for the first time in court is unnecessarily suggestive and the CW must file a motion in limine to admit the in-court identification.

The Court held that an in court identification is suggestive in the same way that a show up identification is and should require the Commonwealth to establish the same foundation to admit the identification. The Court held that it will treat an in court identification without any prior identification as an in-court show up and require the Commonwealth to show good reason for its admission. The Court listed a number of factors that would fall within the “Good Reason” category:

Concern for public safety;
Victim was familiar with the defendant Arresting officer

The Court held that it was not addressing the issue of whether its rule would apply to eyewitness that saw was not present during the commission of a crime, but may have observed the defendant before or after. The Court is referring to a witness that would testify that a defendant appeared calm after the commission of a crime, or appeared nervous or made some statements. Its unlikely this scenario would come up as the police would show the witness a picture or a lineup to establish that the police have the correct suspect.

The court held that if prior to trial the defendant was put in a room and the witness was asked, is that the defendant”, the Court held that it would find that identification suggestive. The Court reasoned that an in-court identification without any prior identification by the victim is essentially the same thing. The Court held that cross examination and jury instructions are not sufficient to avoid the prejudicial impact of a suggestive in-court identification under those circumstances. The Court relied on social science research about the prejudicial impact of suggestive identifications. The Court’s focus on avoiding suggestive identification is critical as the Innocnence Project sites false identifications as one of the leading cause of false convictions.

The Crayton case arose out of a suggestive identification for the defendant who was charged with possession of child pornography. His conviction was overturned and the court held that its new rule regarding identification would apply to all pending cases going forward and would not have retroactive application. To read the Crayton decision follow this link.

As a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer, this decision may come in in charges involving burglary, an assault and battery involving a large number of people or any other crime where identification may be an issue, such as a larceny offense.

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