Eyewitness testimony in trouble

A ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court may have nationwide impact on the admissibility of eyewitness testimony.  In the case of State v. Larry Henderson, the justices unanimously ruled that 30 years of scientific research has shown that eyewitness identification is less reliable than once believed.  The court stated:

“We are convinced from the scientific evidence in the record that memory is malleable, and that an array of variables can affect and dilute memory and lead to misidentifications.” The court also noted that more than 75% of convictions overturned by DNA evidence were cases involving eyewitness misidentification.  The court went on to impose more stringent standards for the admissibility of eyewitness testimony in criminal cases.

Although this was a criminal case, it could have repercussions for eyewitness testimony in civil cases such as personal injury, business and real estate litigation.  Idaho courts have also expressed concern about the reliability of eyewitness testimony.  In State v. Wright, 147 Idaho 150, the Idaho Court of Appeals stated:

Over forty years ago, the United States Supreme Court said that the vagaries of eyewitness identification are well-known; the annals of criminal law are rife with instances of mistaken identification. In recent years, extensive studies have supported a conclusion that eyewitness misidentification is the single greatest source of wrongful convictions in the United States.

One of the ways to keep a check on eyewitness testimony is to obtain testimony from multiple witnesses.  For example, if you have been in a motor vehicle accident, try to get the names and addresses of as many people as possible.  If a Will is being signed by a person of advanced age, it may be desirable to have multiple witness statements concerning the mental alertness of the person signing the Will. Because memories fade with time, it is important to obtain a statement from a witness sooner rather than later.