As reported by nj.com, New Jersey’s standards for eyewitness testimony in the courtroom is unreliable and can encourage police misconduct, the New Jersey Supreme Court said in ordering a revision of investigative and court practices. The unanimous ruling follows a recent report recommending tighter restrictions on eyewitness testimony and is likely to have far-reaching effects beyond New Jersey.
The decision tightens standards adopted by New Jersey after the U.S. Supreme Court 34 years ago announced the rules for allowing eyewitness testimony in the courtroom. Since that time, however, “a vast body of scientific research about human memory has emerged,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote. “That body of work casts doubt on some commonly held views relating to memory.”
Noting most wrongful convictions in the United States are the result of misidentification, the court said judges should conduct pretrial hearings when there is a question about whether police suggestion influenced the outcome of an identification. The court also said jurors should be given greater instruction about how eyewitness testimony can be influenced.
Public Defender Joseph Krakora, who argued the case before the Supreme Court, praised the decision and said it would help eliminate wrongful convictions based on misidentifications. “I am deeply gratified that the court recognized the validity of over 30 years of scientific research on memory and eyewitness identification.”
The case was based on appeals filed by Larry Henderson, who was convicted in 2004 of manslaughter. Krakora argued police pressured a witness into naming him as an accomplice in the fatal shooting in Camden. Krakora argued the officer displaying an array of photos started moving them around as if he were “nudging” the witness toward Henderson’s photo.
An appellate panel in 2008 reversed Henderson’s conviction. Before the Supreme Court would take up the case, it sent the matter to a special master, retired state appellate judge Geoffrey Gaulkin, to determine whether New Jersey’s identification procedures are flawed. Gaulkin’s 86-page report issued last June concluded police need to change the way they obtain identifications and courts have to treat the identifications in a more scientific fashion.
The decision only affects future cases and the two on which this decision was based.