NJ Court Eyewitness Testimony Reliability Instructions

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NJ Court Eyewitness Testimony Reliability Instructions

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July 2012: NY Times New Jersey Court Issues Guidance for Juries About Reliability of Eyewitnesses
Almost a year after the New Jersey Supreme Court made a sweeping ruling in State v. Larry R. Henderson (A-8-08)(062218) aimed at resolving the “troubling lack of reliability in eyewitness identifications,” it issued instructions on Thursday for judges to give jurors to help them better evaluate such evidence in criminal trials.
From the NJ Courts press release:
  • Expanded jury instructions, a new court rule, and a revised court rule relating to eyewitness identifications in criminal cases.
    • “The instructions are designed to minimize the risk of wrongful convictions and help jurors reach informed, just decisions,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said.
      In Henderson, the Supreme Court revised the existing legal standard for assessing eyewitness identification evidence because it did not offer an adequate measure for reliability, did not sufficiently deter inappropriate police conduct, and overstated the jury’s ability to evaluate identification evidence. The opinion said that the current instructions to jurors on eyewitness identifications must be expanded and address variables related to how law enforcement officers conduct identification events as well as important factors outside the control of law enforcement.
      To develop the necessary modern standards, the Supreme Court asked the Criminal Practice Committee and the Committee on Model Jury Charges, composed of judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, and other legal practitioners, to draft proposed revisions to the jury charge and submit them for the Court’s review.
      The new jury instructions caution that certain factors about an eyewitness’s circumstances at time of the offense could render the testimony less reliable. Those factors include the stress the eyewitness was under, the duration of the event, lighting, distance, the eyewitness’s focus on a weapon, and cross-racial identification. Other factors that jurors will consider include the procedures used by law enforcement during the actual identification process. The instructions require jurors to consider the composition of a lineup or photo array and whether any spoken word or gesture by the police could have suggested a specific defendant. Under the new rules and jury instructions, factors about the eyewitness’s circumstances at the time of the offense, along with law enforcement’s behavior when conducting identification procedures, must be weighed by jurors to determine the reliability of eyewitness testimony.
      The jury instructions emphasize that any single factor or combination of factors does not mean the eyewitness is incorrect.

      “The ultimate issue of the trustworthiness of any eyewitness identification is for the jury to decide,” said Chief Justice Rabner. “Only with a fully informed and properly instructed jury can justice be served.”
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