Last year I wrote about a path-setting decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court finding that the criminal procedures for eyewitness identifications needed to be revamped. Although the ruling was binding only in New Jersey, the decision had implications nationwide. Wrongful convictions based upon faulty eyewitness identifications occur not just in New Jersey. A full seventy-six percent of convictions overturned due to DNA evidence involved mistaken eyewitness identifications.
This month, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a set of instructions intended to assist jurors in considering eyewitness testimony. While California courts have their own such jury instructions, the New Jersey instructions are superior because they are based on decades of scientific research. They meticulously lay out the factors that affect the accuracy of eyewitness testimony. They inform the jury those factors are based on scientific research. They explain how memory works and caution that memory is not foolproof.
Here in California, the model New Jersey jury instructions should be in every defense lawyer’s briefcase in a jury trial involving eyewitness identifications. They should be proposed as supplements to the standard jury instructions. Science is science. California, no less than New Jersey, should benefit from the New Jersey Supreme Court’s careful scrutiny of the science surrounding eyewitness identifications.