INNOCENCE: State Supreme Court Takes Lead on Eyewitness Identification Errors

One of the principal causes of wrongful convictions in death penalty cases and other felonies is mistaken eyewitness testimony. On July 19, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued instructions designed to help jurors better evaluate the reliability of eyewitness identifications. A judge is now required to tell jurors before deliberations begin that stress levels, distance, or poor lighting can affect an eyewitness’s ability to make an accurate identification. The new instructions also warn that factors such as the time between the commission of a crime and an identification of a suspect, and the behavior of a police officer during a lineup, can also influence a witness. In cases involving cross-racial identifications, judges are required to tell jurors that “research has shown that people may have greater difficulty in accurately identifying members of a different race.” The instructions, which take effect in September, address problems raised in last year’s state Supreme Court ruling that concluded the traditional test for the reliability of eyewitness testimony should be revised. The instructions are expected to be influential as other states look to revise their approach to this problem. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project in New York, called the instructions critically important. “It changes the way evidence is presented by prosecutors and the way lawyers defend. The whole system will improve,” Scheck said.

New Jersey abolished the death penalty in 2007.

(B. Weiser, “New Jersey Court Issues Guidance for Juries About Reliability of Eyewitnesses,” New York Times, July 19, 2012). See Innocence. Listen to DPIC’s podcast on Innocence.