According to data by the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification played a role in over 75% of criminal convictions that were eventually overturned due to DNA testing. As Supreme Court Justice William Brennan once wrote: “There is almost nothing more convincing than a live human being who takes the stand, points a finger at the defendant, and says ‘That’s the one!’” Because most eyewitnesses think they are telling the truth even when their testimony is mistaken, they won’t display the demeanor of the dishonest or biased witness. Nevertheless, despite its dramatic nature, eyewitness testimony is often wrong.
A recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court revamps criminal procedure for eyewitness identifications. Although those reforms apply only to the State of New Jersey, the analysis of the New Jersey High Court will have implications nationwide. Assisted by experts from both the prosecution and the defense, the court undertook an exhaustive review of scientific research and court documents, and discovered a “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications.”
“From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves the possibility of mistaken identification is real. Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country. We are convinced from the scientific evidence in the record that memory is malleable, and that an array of variables can affect and dilute memory and lead to misidentifications. … In the end, we conclude that the current standard for assessing eyewitness identification evidence does not fully meet its goals. It does not offer an adequate measure for reliability or sufficiently deter inappropriate police conduct. It also overstates the jury’s inherent ability to evaluate evidence offered by eyewitnesses who honestly believe their testimony is accurate.”