The New Jersey Supreme Court recently changed the rules regarding eyewitness identification as set forth in State v. Henderson. The basis for these changes is evidence that showed eyewitness identification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States. In New Jersey, three out of five overturned cases involve mistaken eyewitness identification. We believe that Pennsylvania will eventually follow suit and begin to look more carefully at the validity of eyewitness identifications.
The first set of changes that the N.J. Supreme Court enacted relate to how eyewitness identifications should take place. In general, these changes ensure a double-blind process where neither the witness nor the officer knows who the suspect is or if the suspect is included in the line-up. Other significant changes include attempts to prevent a witness from feeling compelled to pick a suspect.
The second set of changes proposed after State v. Henderson includes a variety of factors that ought to be considered when determining the admissibility of a witness’s identification. The new list of factors used to determine credibility employ scientific evidence to determine various aspects that bias the memory of a witness and the selection of a suspect. Some examples include stress, presence of a weapon in the crime, time-lapse between the crime and identification, and the race of both the suspect and the witness.
Finally, the N.J. Supreme Court’s decision has met with a mixture of positive and negative reactions. The decision has been lauded as the most significant change in witness identification rules in thirty years. This optimism about the results has been mitigated by the fact that the decision kept the burden of proof with the defendant to show that a witness’ identification is questionable and the decision did not retroactively apply the new standards to past cases.