Throughout history, eyewitnesses have played an important role when it
comes to matters of criminal defense law. Needless to say, eyewitness
testimony is not as reliable as many of us would want to believe. According to the
Innocence Project, headed by New York Defense Attorney Barry Sheck, 75% of the cases involving
wrongful conviction were based on misidentification by a witness. The
United States Supreme Court has not addressed this issue since 1977 in
Manson v. Braithwaite
and just recently in 2011 in the case of
Perry v. New Hampshire
, but fortunately, the New Jersey Supreme Court is leading the charge in
protecting the rights of the accused.
On July 19, 2012, the NJ Supreme Court issued new instructions that judges
must give jurors to help them better evaluate eyewitness evidence used
in a criminal case. These instructions require jury members to consider
factors such as the time between the commission of a crime and the witness’s
identification, lighting conditions, stress levels of the witness, distances,
whether police officers were present and how they behaved, and whether
the witness was the same race as the defendant (scientific research has
shown that individuals have a harder time identifying members of another
race). The court’s ruling was heralded as one of the most comprehensive
reviews of scientific research on the subject of eyewitness identifications.
While this decision only affects the law in New Jersey, it is an important
development since New Jersey has long been on the forefront of eyewitness
identification standards. In 2001, the state issued guidelines for police
departments to follow in order to reduce mistaken identifications. Other
states soon adopted these policies, or used them as a guide in revising
their own, making New Jersey’s guidelines the standard to follow.
Eyewitness identification has long been studied by social scientists, and
is perhaps the most scientifically researched issue in criminal law, leading
to over 2,000 studies since the Supreme Court’s holding in 1977 in
Manson v. Braithwaite. Legal experts hope that the new jury instructions will provide a road
map for explaining eyewitness memory to jurors, and will help improve
the legal system as a whole.
If you or someone you know requires legal representation, it is important
you contact an attorney who can protect your rights. At Sullivan &
Brill, our attorneys have practiced in both state and federal court, and
have defended clients against a wide assortment of charges.