New Jersey high court creates new guidelines for eyewitness evidence

[JURIST] The New Jersey Supreme Court [official website] on Wednesday ruled [text] that eyewitness-based evidence should be treated more cautiously by New Jersey courts, issuing new guidelines for judges. The court instructed that judges in future cases should hold pretrial hearings to determine all possible variables to the eyewitness testimony as well as administering jury instructions, sometimes mid-way through trial, that explain possible variables specific to the case that could have eroded a witness' memory of the incident. The unanimous opinion relied largely on several scientific studies that have discredited eyewitness testimony:

We find that the scientific evidence presented is both reliable and useful. Despite arguments to the contrary, we agree with the Special Master that "[t]he science abundantly demonstrates the many vagaries of memory encoding, storage, and retrieval; the malleability of memory; the contaminating effects of extrinsic information; the influence of police interview techniques and identification procedures; and the many other factors that bear on the reliability of eyewitness identifications. The research presented on remand is not only extensive, but as Dr. Monahan testified, it represents the "gold standard in terms of the applicability of social science research to the law." Experimental methods and findings have been tested and retested, subjected to scientific scrutiny through peer-reviewed journals, evaluated through the lens of meta-analyses, and replicated at times in real-world settings. As reflected above, consensus exists among the experts who testified on remand and within the broader research community.
The ruling also gave suggestions for police officers to reform how they conduct lineups. The Innocence Project [advocacy website], which filed an amicus brief, was pleased [press release] with the decision, saying it will ultimately affect every court in the nation and calling on the US Supreme Court [official website] to make similar findings.

In May, the US Supreme Court granted certiorari [order list, PDF] in a case over a suspect identification [JURIST report]. The court will hear Perry v. New Hampshire [docket], in which Barion Perry is challenging his conviction [AP report] for breaking into a car based on a witness identifying him as the perpetrator while he was in handcuffs under police custody. The witness claims she saw Perry break into the car and steal things but later could neither pick him out of a photo line-up nor describe his appearance. Perry argues that the identification was suggestive since he was in handcuffs, making him look like a criminal. In 2008, a UK study suggested that an eyewitness' ability to recall specific details of an incident decreases dramatically in high-stress situations [JURIST report]. The study, conducted by Tin Valentine and Jan Mesout of Goldsmiths [academic website], part of the University of London, measured participants' ability to recall details about an actor instructed to jump out at visitors as they moved through a "fun-house" maze. The study found that participants who reported being more stressed during the visit consistently failed to correctly identify specific details about the actor afterwards.

 

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