Readers know that New Jersey requires its police and prosecutors to follow the best-research-based practices for identification procedures. My book Failed Evidence, due out in September, presents the story of how New Jersey started down this path and became ground zero on eyewitness evidence. And in a recent post here, I described how the New Jersey Supreme Court began to require comprehensive jury instructions based on the same science.
Here’s a related question: What’s the motivation at work here? Why do New Jersey criminal justice officials think the new, science-based procedures are important enough to require them?
One answer seems to be the frame of mind with which folks in New Jersey approach their duties in the justice system: they believe we should do the best that science allows us to do to get it right. In an article entitled “NJ Courts View Witnesses Skeptically,” published August 4, officials articulate this idea eloquently. According to retired New Jersey Superior Court Judge Dennis Braithwaite, New Jersey’s “landmark” jury instructions originate with what we know from decades of research. “This is all based on deep review of the scientific research on eyewitness identification, and courts in other states will look to see how our Supreme Court processed that research.”
But there is also a heavy dose of pragmatism at work: officials also believe that all of the new procedures will save the state money by avoiding costly wrongful convictions that could bleed the state treasury for years and erode the integrity of the criminal justice system. And the costs of implementing the new procedures — such as having lineups administered by officers not involved in the investigation of the case — turn out to be relatively easy to manage, even for small agencies.
As we explore why law enforcement resists science, jurisdictions like New Jersey that have taken the bold steps necessary to bring their practices into alignment with the best the research has to offer, become examples of why resistance is less and less tenable. If you’re moved to comment, please tell us about other jurisdictions that have made similar leaps. (Hello, North Carolina?)