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New Jersey Supreme Court Issues Landmark Decision Mandating Major Changes in the Way Courts Handle Identification Procedures

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Relying on Scientific Research on Memory and Identification, Court Says Standard Set by U.S. Supreme Court 30 Years Ago Must Be Revised

Contact:  Paul Cates, 212-364-5346, pcates@innocenceproject.org

(Trenton, NJ – August 24, 2011) — Today the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a landmark decision requiring major changes in the way courts are required to evaluate identification evidence at trial and how they should instruct juries.  The new changes, designed to reduce the likelihood of wrongful convictions by taking into account more than 30 years of scientific research on eyewitness identification and memory, require courts to greatly expand the factors that courts and juries should consider in assessing the risk of misidentification.   

“Today the New Jersey Supreme Court has said that the legal architecture set by the U.S. Supreme Court 30 years ago to evaluate identification evidence must be renovated. This is a decision that will ultimately affect every state and federal court in the nation,” said Barry Scheck, Co-Director of the Innocence Project, which is affiliated with Cardozo School of Law. “The court has recognized the tremendous fallibility of eyewitness identifications, and based on the most thorough review of scientific research undertaken by a court, has set up comprehensive and practical guidelines for how judges and juries should handle this important evidence.”

The court’s decision requires judges to more thoroughly scrutinize the police identification procedures and many other variables that affect an eyewitness identification. The court noted that this more extensive scrutiny will require enhanced jury instructions on factors that increase the risk of misidentification. These factors include: 

• Whether the lineup procedure was administered “double blind,” meaning that the officer who administers the lineup is unaware who the suspect is and the witness is told that the officer doesn’t know.
• Whether the witness was told that the suspect may not be in the lineup and that they need not make a choice.
• Whether the police avoided providing the witness with feedback that would cause the witness to believe he or she selected the correct suspect.  Similarly, whether the police recorded the witnesses’ level of confidence at the time of the identification.
• Whether the witness had multiple opportunities to view the same person, which would make it more likely for the witness to choose this person as the suspect.
• Whether the witness was under a high level of stress.
• Whether a weapon was used, especially if the crime was of short duration.
• How much time the witness had to observe the event.
• How far the witness was from the perpetrator and what the lighting conditions were.
• Whether the witness possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification, such as age of the witness and influence of alcohol or drugs.
• Whether the perpetrator possessed characteristics that would make it harder to make an identification.  Was he or she wearing a disguise?  Did the suspect have different facial features at the time of the identification?
• The length of time between the crime and identification. 
• Whether the case involved cross-racial identification.

To provide courts with these more enhanced jury instructions, the court gave the Criminal Practice Committee and the Committee on Model Criminal Jury Charges 90 days to submit proposed revisions to the current jury instructions on eyewitness identification, specifically directing them to consider the model jury instructions submitted by the Innocence Project.

The court’s decision stems from the 2004 conviction of Larry Henderson, a Camden man who received an 11-year prison sentence for reckless manslaughter and weapons possession related to a fatal shooting in January 2003. He appealed the photo lineup procedure because officers failed to follow the New Jersey Attorney General’s Guidelines, issued in 2001, for conducting identification procedures. The appeals court agreed and ordered a new hearing on the admissibility of the photographic identification of Henderson. Before that could occur, the state appealed, and the New Jersey Supreme Court decided that an extensive inquiry into witness identification procedures currently used by law enforcement was necessary.

The New Jersey Supreme Court appointed a Special Master to review the legal standard for the admissibility of eyewitness testimony known as the “Manson test,” established by the United States Supreme Court in 1977 and fully embraced by 48 out of 50 states, including New Jersey in 1988 in State v. Madison.  In addition to the parties to the litigation, the court invited the Innocence Project and the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey to participate in an inquiry by the Special Master who considered over 200 scientific studies and heard from some of the nation’s most respected experts on eyewitness identification before issuing findings to the court in June 2010. 

The court remanded the Henderson case back to the trial court for further review in accordance with the decision. The decision will apply to all future cases, but will not be applied retroactively with the exception of the companion case, State v. Chen, in which the court held that suggestive identification procedures that resulted from private actors would also be subject to court scrutiny to ensure the reliability of the identification.  

Download today’s decision here

Download the legal findings that the Innocence Project submitted to the court, which includes the model jury instructions
.

Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, playing a role in more than 75% of the 273 convictions overturned through DNA testing. Additional information about eyewitness misidentification is available here