New eyewitness jury instructions in New Jersey may pave the way for Pennsylvania

Filed under: Criminal Law by Contributor @ July 27, 2012

Although not yet adopted in Pennsylvania, the New Jersey Supreme Court today released amended jury instructions based on the Court’s ruling last year in State v. Henderson, where the Court examined a plethora of research relating to the reliability of eyewitness testimony. The goal of the new instructions is to inform jurors that eyewitness testimony is not perfect, and such testimony may be more or less reliable based on a variety of factors, both in witnessing the crime in progress and later when identifying a suspect in a photo array or recounting the event to police and subsequently at trial.

In Henerson, the New Jersey Supreme Court revised the standard for assessing eyewitness identification, noting that the reliability of eyewitness identifications was suspect when put in front of a jury. The Court noted that the current method did not sufficiently deter inappropriate police conduct, and overstated the jury’s ability to evaluate identification evidence. The Court remedied these problems by mandating revised jury instructions, released today, that properly inform jurors of the potential problems with identifications. The new jury instructions also set forth important factors used to judge the accuracy of the identifications, including factors both within and outside the control of law enforcement.

The new jury instructions, used in criminal cases where eyewitness testimony is presented as evidence, will instruct the jury to take into account:

  • The witnesses’ opportunity to view and degree of attention of the witness, taking into account certain factors such as: stress, duration, weapon focus, distance, lighting, intoxication, or disguises.
  • Prior description of the perpetrator
  • Confidence and accuracy of the description of the perpetrator
  • Time that has elapsed since the incident and eyewitness identification
  • Cross-racial effects

For the new instructions, see

Chief Justice Stuart Rabner commented on the new instructions noting that, “[i]n all future criminal trials involving identification evidence in New Jersey, judges will rely on new model jury instructions that can be tailored to the facts of each case. . . . Jurors will then hear about relevant factors that may have affected the reliability of the identification evidence presented at trial. . .The instructions are designed to minimize the risk of wrongful convictions and help jurors reach informed, just decisions.”

Although Pennsylvania has not adopted these new requirements, the studies and other research used by the New Jersey Supreme Court in Henderson was extensive and may lead the way for other states, including Pennsylvania to adopt similar instructions in the interest of public policy and accuracy in court.

If you have been charged with a crime, please contact an experienced Pennsylvania Criminal Defense Attorneyat Fairlie & Lippy.

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