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Posted Aug. 25, 2011

Monahan, Garrett Cited in 'Landmark' Opinion on Eyewitness ID

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Professor John Monahan testified before a special master conducting an exhaustive study of eyewitness identification research on behalf of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

The New Jersey Supreme Court cited the work of University of Virginia Law professors John Monahan and Brandon Garrett in its sweeping new rules for the handling of eyewitness identifications in court, issued Aug. 24.

The court’s unanimous 134-page decision, written by Chief Justice Stuart J. Rabner, cites the professors’ work in outlining new rules for eyewitness testimony that take into account scientific research about the reliability of human memory that has emerged since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a test for the admission of eyewitness evidence 34 years ago.

“I testified that research on witness identification was the gold standard in the field of law and social science,” said Monahan, who is also a professor of psychology and psychiatric medicine. He testified via teleconference before a special master who conducted an exhaustive study of eyewitness identification research. “I think this opinion was a remarkably comprehensive and sophisticated analysis of a vast amount of data. It will go down as a landmark of courts’ use of social science research.”

The new rules, which apply only to New Jersey, provide courts with options beyond simply allowing eyewitness identifications or ruling them as inadmissible. The rules now allow courts to choose to admit an eyewitness identification, but with only a portion of the witness’ testimony. They also call for careful instructions to a jury, explaining why certain aspects of an eyewitness identification may not be as reliable as they think.

“It’s a big opinion. It’s very important,” Garrett said. “What it does is provide a model for other states and really for the country in how to structure eyewitness identifications in the courtroom.”

The ruling cites Garrett’s book, “Convicting the Innocent,” which described eyewitness misidentifications in 190 of the first 250 DNA exonerations in the United States.

Garrett said the new rules could lead to fewer cases going to trial with weak eyewitness evidence.

“With these jury instructions in place, prosecutors aren’t going to push cases where they know there was a departure from best practices or where there were real problems with eyewitness identifications because they know that the jury won’t be misled by a seemingly confident but unreliable eyewitness,” he said.

The opinion lays out factors for judges, prosecutors, and defense lawyers to consider when evaluating and litigating eyewitness identifications.

“[The court is] really giving the whole system a detailed social science framework — making clear what really matters when you’re evaluating an eyewitness identification,” Garrett said.