Quickie News: Court issues science-based guidelines on eyewitness identification

This is huge.  HUGE, I tell ya.  So huge that, after I heard this on the radio this morning, I had to squeeze in this post during my lunch hour.  I’ll try to get out a full post tonight.

The New Jersey Supreme Court has issued an opinion today that is the culmination of several years of work by it and its special master determining the science regarding eyewitness identification.  According to the case summary produced by the court’s clerk, “The Special Master presided over a hearing that probed testimony by seven experts and produced more than 2,000 pages of transcripts along with hundreds of scientific studies.”

So, you ask, why is this such big news?

Glad you asked.  For centuries, courts have established rules of evidence that seek to determine what kinds of information is reliable, so that decisions are made based on the most reliable information available.  That’s right: eons before the invention of computers, somebody in a robe and powdered wig was uttering “garbage in, garbage out.”  But the rules of evidence are based on nothing more than centuries of gut feelings by judges and legislators about what kind of information is trustworthy.

As many studies have shown, because of human nature and the human brain, eyewitness identification of a person is often flat out wrong.  (I tried to explain this to my wife once, but she still didn’t believe that I had mistaken the 23-year-old skinny brunette for her.)  It is also the sole real basis of many convictions.  As a result, many of those convictions are factually incorrect, and many more may be factually correct but legally incorrect in that the evidence used to support the conviction did not actually prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was the one who committed the crime.

That a court would engage in scientific research to determine what information is reliable is surprising but reassuring.  Of course, this came from a pretty progressive state; my hopes for similar measures in other states are not so high.

Read all about it here, for now, and watch for more in this space.  Maybe I’ll even have time to read the entire 135-page decision this afternoon.

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Filed under Evidence, Eyewitness identification

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