The New Jersey Supreme Court is making some changes that will make it easier for defendants to challenge eyewitness accounts. As more cases shed light on just how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be (two of the "West Memphis Three," who were were recently freed, were convicted based largely on eyewitness testimony), the court is saying that the now 34-year-old guidelines set by the U.S. Supreme Court need an update.
Stuart Rabner, the New Jersey court's chief justice, wrote in a letter about the changes, "From social science research to the review of actual police lineups, from laboratory experiments to DNA exonerations, the record proves that the possibility of mistaken identification is real. Indeed, it is now widely known that eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful convictions across the country."
The ruling means that whenever a defendant presents evidence that an eyewitness's testimony is tainted, the judge must hold a hearing and consider factors that might have influenced the account. As you can guess, that can be a lot of things, from time of day, to how much time has passed since the incident, to whether the witness was drunk, and more. When an eyewitness's testimony is disputed, the judge must immediately go over all the factors and present them to the jury. In the past, the judge would still do this, but not every single time.
The decision is likely to have a widespread impact on the nation's judicial system, because New Jersey's Supreme Court is seen as a trend-setter in the criminal law world. Perhaps New Jersey residents can focus on being proud of that, and now maybe put some of the other stuff the state is known for behind them.