Massachusetts Jury Instructions Updated to Help Assess Reliability of Eyewitness Testimony
The Massachusetts high court has issued new instructions for jurors on how to assess the reliability of eyewitness testimony in a criminal trial.
The decision comes in one of three cases the court accepted to review the framework for how courts throughout the state deal with identification evidence. The trial court had refused the defendant’s request for jury instructions similar to those embraced in a landmark decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court acknowledging the science on memory and identification. In his decision, Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants took notice of the science and drafted a new template for judges to use when instructing jurors in such cases.
The new instructions include warnings that, just because a witness expresses certainty about what they saw, it doesn’t necessarily mean events occurred in that manner. Sometimes the effect of stress on an eyewitness or the passage of time can interfere with the accuracy of a memory.
The instructions note that witnesses are often influenced by descriptions given by others, including police officers, which “may inflate the witness’s confidence in the identification.” Often, witnesses will “recognize” a suspect because they have been shown the suspect multiple times during identification procedures.
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