Friday, October 5, 2012

Jury instructions reveal potential flaws in eyewitness testimony

On behalf of The Law Offices of Daniel J Miller posted in Criminal Defense on Monday, July 23, 2012

Virginia fans of police and crime dramas may recognize the importance given to eyewitness testimony in criminal proceedings as depicted on the silver and small screens. But decades of research have begun to crack long-held notions about the reliability of what we perceive with our own eyes. And one state has taken the pioneering step of creating jury instructions that inform jurors of some of the potential shortfalls of images a witness recalls from memory.

In accordance with the instructions, judges must tell jurors that, "Research has revealed that human memory is not like a video recording that a witness need only replay to remember what happened." In particular, judges must state that eyewitness testimony can be adversely affected by, among other things, the gap in time since the witnessed event, by lighting conditions and by a difference in race between the witness and the defendant facing criminal charges.

Indeed, studies have revealed that people of one race have more trouble correctly identifying a person of another race. One of the jury's more important functions is weighing the credibility and reliability of witnesses brought to testify in open court. Under the new instructions, jurors will now be able to take this scientific evidence into account when deciding how much weight to accord a particular witness's testimony.

The effect of the instructions could be monumental. Some attorneys have predicted that many aspects of a New Jersey criminal case, from the basic collection of evidence to the operation of trials, will be altered by the changes. Other legal experts believe that other states may now adopt similar measures. It is currently unknown whether Virginia will take action to inform jurors about factors that can potentially affect the reliability of eyewitness testimony.

Source: The New York Times, "New Jersey Court Issues Guidance for Juries About Reliability of Eyewitnesses," Benjamin Weiser, July 19, 2012.

Tags: criminal defense, eyewitness testimony, jury instructions

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