Yesterday, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued new jury instructions regarding eyewitness identifications. Judges must now inform jurors that many factors can undercut the ability of an eyewitness to make an accurate identification, such as lighting, distance, stress levels, and time elapsed between the crime and the identification. Furthermore, the judge must caution the jury that eyewitnesses have particular trouble identifying someone of a different race.
The new instructions came in the wake of a landmark ruling by the court almost a year ago in Henderson v. New Jersey. In that case, the court unanimously ruled that the test for the reliability of eyewitness testimony that had been on the books since 1977 was outdated. The new instructions will take effect on September 4.
Eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions nationwide, contributing to nearly 75 percent of the wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence. Based on this, the Innocence Project submitted a friend-of-the-court brief in the original case. The New Jersey changes are “critically important,” Innocence Project co-director Barry Scheck told the New York Times. He continued:
It changes the way evidence is presented by prosecutors and the way lawyers defend. The whole system will improve.