July 1, 2010

Eyewitness ID: Landmark report urges overhaul

New Jersey case may change legal landscape, reduce wrongful convictions

Mistaken eyewitness identifications are the leading cause of wrongful convictions, playing a role in three out of four DNA exoneration cases to date, according to the Innocence Project. Now, a cutting-edge report commissioned by the Supreme Court of New Jersey recommends major changes to bring the courts into alignment with the current state of the science on eyewitness testimony.

Geoffrey Gaulkin, a retired judge, spent close to a year reviewing three decades of research and taking testimony from experts in a hearing that legal observers describe as unprecedented. His conclusion: About a third of witnesses who pick out a suspect choose the wrong person, and the courts are not keeping up with science to prevent such wrongful identifications in court. Expert witnesses at the evidentiary hearing included John Monahan, law professor at the University of Virginia, Gary Wells of Iowa State University, and Steven Penrod of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

The state high court request for a comprehensive probe stemmed from the case of Larry Henderson, who was convicted of manslaughter in 2004 based on a photographic identification procedure.

In his report, Gaulkin recommends far-reaching procedural safeguards, including procedures to assess the reliability of witnesses' identification of suspects. He also proposes that prosecutors, rather than defendants, should bear the burden of proof regarding the reliability of eyewitness testimony, and that juries and judges should be fully informed about the science of eyewitness identification and its fallibility.

Observers say the Special Master's findings of science and law represent a sea change that may eventually serve as a blueprint for other jurisdictions to revamp both their witness identification protocols and their rules on the use of eyewitness evidence in court.

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Hat tip: Jane

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