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.
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.