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.