The New Jersey Supreme Court handed down State v. Henderson on Wednesday, a landmark decision changing the way its state courts handle eyewitness identifications in criminal trials.
Citing the inherent unreliability of eyewitness IDs, the opportunity for police misconduct, and the inability of jurors to fully understand these issues, the court ordered judges to conduct in-depth pretrial hearings and to provide juries with enhanced instructions.
Eyewitness misidentifications are considered to be one of the greatest causes of wrongful convictions, reports the Associated Press. A study ordered by the court further expands on this point, demonstrating that a wide variety of variables can impact an eyewitness ID, including race and the presence of a weapon.
For this reason, courts have tried to restructure line-up procedures, and do not admit eyewitness identifications when police procedures are impermissibly suggestive, resulting in a substantial likelihood of misidentification.
The NJ Supreme Court found that these safeguards do not go far enough to protect against false eyewitness identifications, ordering the following changes:
- If there is some evidence of suggestiveness on the part of police, the judge must hold a full pretrial hearing and consider all relevant variables; and
- If admitted, juries must be given fact-specific instructions explaining factors that may impact reliability.
Though limited to New Jersey courts, this ruling is expected to have a nationwide impact, as the AP reports that the state has been a leader in identification standards.
There's also a strong possibility that its well-reasoned and thorough analysis will influence the U.S. Supreme Court, which is scheduled to consider eyewitness identifications during the Fall 2011 term.
- New Jersey High Court Alters Witness Identification Standards (Wall Street Journal)
- Lineup (FindLaw)
- How reliable is eyewitness testimony? (FindLaw's Writ)