South Carolina exoneree Perry Mitchell spent nearly 15 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit, largely due to an eyewitness misidentification, before DNA testing proved his innocence and set him free in 1998. Now, an editorial in the Sun News questions if things would have gone differently if the trial court had been required to give jury instructions about eyewitness identification testimony like those recently issued by the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Beginning in September, jurors in any New Jersey case that includes eyewitness testimony will be informed about the many factors that can undercut the ability of an eyewitness to make an accurate identification.
Warning jurors to take some extra time with the evidence rather than trusting it implicitly is a worthy goal. Currently, while S.C. judges can and do offer some instructions to juries on state laws that affect cases, jurors will hear no similar instruction in Palmetto courtrooms. Jurors are on their own and whatever information they already happen to have about the reliability of evidence.
New Jersey has shown us the way. We may no longer be able to be first in this reform, but we sure shouldn’t be last. Let’s get ahead of the curve and help build momentum for the change across the nation. Justice demands it.