New Jersey at the Forefront of Eyewitness Misidentification Reform

July 1st, 2010

Over 10 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling requiring judges to instruct juries about the reliability problems with cross-racial identifications when the identification is not corroborated by other evidence. This ruling came after McKinley Cromedy was exonerated through DNA testing. Cromedy spent five years in prison for a rape he did not commit. The only hard evidence presented at his trial was the victim’s testimony identifying him as her attacker.

Last month the Special Master appointed by the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Henderson released a report calling for a major overhaul of the legal standards used by courts to determine the admissibility of eyewitness identification evidence. Geoffrey Gaulkin, a retired appellate judge, submitted the report after extensive hearings on the state of the law and science of eyewitness identification. The report recognized the major scientific developments in the area of eyewitness identification and concluded that the widely-used Manson test and procedures are not “valid and appropriate in light of recent scientific and other evidence.” The Special Master made numerous findings to support his conclusion, including the following: suggestive procedures can falsely inflate the reliability of eyewitness testimony; eyewitness memory is more like physical trace evidence than a videotape recording and can be mishandled, contaminated, or degraded; non law enforcement actors can contaminate a witness’s memory. The report recommended that the reliability inquiry be expanded to include “all the variables left unaddressed” by Manson, that at least an initial burden be placed on the prosecution to produce evidence of the reliability of the eyewitness identification evidence, and that judges and juries be informed of and guided by the scientific findings regarding eyewitness identification.

“A new framework is urgently needed to address what the science has told us,” said Ezekiel R. Edwards, a lawyer with the Innocence Project in New York who participated in the New Jersey investigation on the issue.

Many factors have been found to affect the reliability of an identification. The way lineups and photo arrays are administered drastically affects the dependability of an identification. New Jersey has guidelines for police officers administering lineups. These guidelines include telling the witness that the perpetrator may not be present and showing photos sequentially rather than simultaneously. Such procedures have been found to reduce the risk of misidentification.

According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness misidentification was a contributing factor in over 75 percent of US convictions later overturned by DNA evidence.

Lounsberry, Emilie. “New Jersey is a leader in addressing problems with eyewitness testimony.” The Pennsyvania Inquirer. June 28, 2010. Read the article