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New Jersey Special Master Calls for Major Overhaul of Eyewitness Evidence

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For several months, a court in New Jersey held hearings at the request of the New Jersey Supreme Court to “test the current validity” of New Jersey’s standards on the admissibility of eyewitness identification. The hearings took place over a total of 10 days, and involved experts from fields of social science, law, forensics, and law enforcement. Today, the Special Master declared that, “The short answer to the Court’s question whether the Manson/Madison test and procedures are ‘valid and appropriate in light of recent scientific and other evidence’ is that they are not.” This standard, also followed in Pennsylvania, is to test the “reliability” of a witness’ memory based upon certain factors such as the witness’ ability to observe, the detail of the description, and the length of time the event happened. The problem, said the Master, is that some of the “reliability” factors which courts use tend to falsely inflate errors in identification.

Just to take one example, a factor courts are required to assess is a witness’ confidence in their identification. But the scientific evidence has shown that many events–including an officer’s telling a witness she got the “right guy”–can artificially inflate that witness’ certainty of her identification even if that identification is of an innocent person.

The Special Master called for sweeping reforms to the criminal justice system to accommodate the accepted science of eyewitness memory. The report calls for broad reliability hearings pre-trial. In addition, the report calls for the justice system to “systematically and explicitly adopt and broadly use the scientific findings” in broad voir dire questioning of potential jurors, in allowing appropriate expert testimony
“in all phases of the litigation” and with appropriate jury instructions.

The report will now be considered by the New Jersey Supreme Court. The full report can be viewed by visiting the New Jersey courts website.

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