The New Jersey Supreme Court issued a ruling this week that could go on to change eyewitness identification handling procedures in courts across the country. Not because their ruling has to be followed throughout the nation but because the NJ High Court is often recognized as a trailblazer in criminal law. The changes are seen as much needed and a step towards reducing wrongful convictions.
Eyewitness identifications are often the most convincing pieces of evidence in a criminal case. There’s nothing quite as damning as a witness pointing out the suspect in a court of law and saying with certainty that they are the one who committed the crime. But despite their dramatic impact, they are often flawed.
In the majority of wrongful convictions, discovered through DNA testing, an eyewitness identified the suspect. Human memory is fallible and although an eyewitness identification is convincing, it isn’t always correct.
There are several factors that can make an eyewitness id less credible—things like lighting, the race of the witness versus that of the suspect, he time elapsed between the offense and the lineup, any input given to the witness by the police officers, and how the lineup is presented to the witness.
Over the last several years, new revelations have come about leading justice advocates and researchers to call for changes in how police and courts handled eyewitness identifications and accounts. While some departments made slight changes, showing photos to witnesses in a sequential manner rather than a photo-spread, for instance, not all departments were as proactive.
The New Jersey Supreme Court’s latest ruling could stand to show police departments and courts across the country that the time is nigh for real changes to how they handle identifications like this.
The 134 page decision, authored by Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner, includes a new list of rules for judges to follow when encountering cases involving eyewitness identification. The rules dictate that a judge must hold a hearing about the credibility of the identification when there is evidence the identification was influenced. The hearing will look at such things as police behavior, lighting, and other factors that can influence such an id.
While the ruling included more than 12 factors for a judge to consider in evaluating the reliability of an eyewitness identification, it stopped short of “bright line rules that would lead to suppression or reliable evidence any time a law enforcement officer makes a mistake.” In most cases, the evidence would still go before the jury, though it might be accompanied with judicial instruction as to the fallible nature of eyewitness testimonies.
Jurors are convinced when a witness identifies a suspect. Each jury should be informed of the problems with eyewitness procedures and their repeated presence in wrongful convictions.
When you are accused of a criminal offense in New Jersey and someone identifies you as the suspect, it may seem like all hope is lost. But witnesses make mistakes and more judges are aware of that these days than in days past. If you are accused of an offense you simply didn’t do, contact us today to discuss your case and what can be done.