The decision by New Jersey's Supreme Court last week to overhaul the state's rules for how judges and jurors treat evidence from police lineups could help transform the way officers conduct a central technique of police work, reports the New York Times. The court strongly endorsed decades of research demonstrating that traditional eyewitness identification procedures are flawed and can send innocent people to prison. By making it easier for defendants to challenge witness evidence in criminal cases, the court for the first time attached consequences for investigators who fail to take steps to reduce the subtle pressures and influences on witnesses that can result in mistaken identifications.
“No court has ever taken this topic this seriously or put in this kind of effort,” said Gary L. Wells, a professor of psychology at Iowa State University who is an expert on witness identification and has written extensively on the topic. Other courts are likely to follow suit, and in November the United States Supreme Court will take up the question of identification for the first time since 1977. But changing how the nation's more than 16,000 independent law enforcement agencies handle the presentation of suspects to witnesses will be no easy task. The notion of change has met with resistance from police officers who remain skeptical about the research and bridle at the idea that they could affect the responses of witnesses.