NJ Supreme Court Sets New Standards on Eyewitness Testimony

Here’s very good news for the cause of justice. The New Jersey Supreme Court has established a new set of jury instructions that includes disclaimers about the reliability of eyewitness testimony, which is often the primary basis on a criminal conviction rests.

After Labor Day, judges will be required to give jurors plenty of precautions before they consider the testimony they heard during trials.

For example, jurors will be told: “Human memory is not foolproof. Research has revealed that human memory is not like a video recording that a witness need only replay to remember what happened. Memory is far more complex … Eyewitness identification must be scrutinized carefully.”

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said the new instructions to jurors will discourage actions that could help put the wrong person behind bars.

“These charges will deter practices that can lead to misidentification,” Rabner told The Star-Ledger. “The charges are critically important to the eyewitness identification process and give detailed guidance to juries that will allow them to assess the evidence and decide how much weight to give the evidence they heard.”

The new instructions are the result of the Supreme Court’s reversal of convictions for manslaughter and attempted murder, and based on defense attorneys’ claims that the state’s standards for identifying suspects can encourage police misconduct and ignore scientific evidence exonerating the wrongly accused.

But it’s hardly perfect:

The new rule tells police to record or write down their dialogue with an eyewitness about the identification, including how certain they are and whether there was discussion about it with anyone else. It gives judges discretion to decide whether to permit testimony about identification if police don’t follow the standards.

Zegas said the rule doesn’t go far enough to protect innocent people because while it directs police to record conversations, it doesn’t require it. And, he said, the rule isn’t very clear on how judges should use their discretion.

It’s a good start, but only a start. And here again, everything should be recorded, including every interview with a witness. If you have recording equipment made mandatory on every police uniform, that isn’t a problem. And there are other procedures that need to be put in place, like not allowing an officer to run a police lineup if they know the identity of the suspect in the lineup.

None of this means that eyewitness testimony can or should be ignored. What it means is that there needs to be safeguards in place to help prevent inaccurate testimony.

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  • TGAP Dad

    Now if we can just do the same for drug-sniffing dogs, breathalyzers, fingerprint analysis…

  • Definitely an encouraging step. I really hope this spreads to other states.

  • keithb

    I wish they would add to the instructions that eyewitnesses that *know* the defendant are more reliable that those who don’t.

    If I see my son take money from my wife’s purse, I can be pretty sure that it is a valid identification. If some random perp grabs her purse, the identification is much more doubtful for all the various reasons.

  • eric

    Ironically, proper blinding could eliminate the need for more paperwork. The objectors (whomever they are) are literally creating more work for themselves by fighting against good scientific procedure.

    Judges regularly bar other forms of evidence from the courtroom when its improperly collected. FFS, just do the same thing here. Just start ruling that non-blinded lineup results can’t be presented in court. The police and prosecution will fall into line. Heck, a lot of good police officers would likely welcome such a ruling because it would take the political pressure off them to ‘cheat.’

  • Anneliese

    This is another good start. I think it says that if the cops have no reason to arrest you they have no right to use force.

  • Sastra

    Skeptic groups have been hitting on the reliability of eye-witness testimony since they began — not just on general principles for scientific integrity, but because “here is what I saw” is usually the grounding evidence for paranormal and extraordinary claims.

    And I can’t help it. Every time I come across the phrase “eye-witness testimony” I mentally hear the popular boilerplate apologetics of someone defending the historicity of the Bible:”Now, what’s the most reliable type of evidence there is? What kind of evidence do police and judges and psychologists trust the most? That’s right: eye-witness testimony! People who can report what they saw for themselves, with their own eyes. Just like in the New Testament!”

    It sears into the brain.

  • Tim DeLaney

    Eyewitness testimony that is derived from identification in a lineup ought to be disallowed entirely on mathematical grounds. If you understand even the bare bones of Bayes Theorem, you know that simply putting a person in a lineup increases enormously the likelihood of his being misidentified by a witness. Even when the lineup is conducted with scrupulous care. meaning that the officer conducting it has no idea who the actual suspect is, it is fatally flawed from a mathematical POV.

    A lineup is warranted only in very special circumstances. For example, it has some value if you know for certain in advance that one of the people in the lineup is the perpetrator. Such cases are extremely rare. Even then, there are few people who could accurately — beyond a reasonable doubt — pick a previously unknown face out of a lineup.

    The NJ Supreme court is on the right track, but doesn’t go far enough IMO.

    As keithb points out, this doesn’t apply to people the witness already knew before the event witnessed.