Tuesday, May 09, 2006

CA: trial court's refusal to allow defense expert witness to testify about problems with eyewitness testimony not an abuse of discretion

People v Young, __ NY3d __ [available here]

In one of two decisions handed down today dealing with issues concerning expert testimony offered on the issue of eyewitness identification, Judge R.S. Smith writes for the majority of the Court of Appeals in People v Young, and the Court holds it was not an abuse of discretion for a trial court to refuse "to allow an expert to testify about factors that affect the reliability of eyewitness identifications." (Young, __ NY3d at __.) From Judge R.S. Smith's opinion:

The harder question is whether the trial court abused its discretion in excluding [the expert's] testimony. In People v Lee (96 NY2d 157 [2001]) (decided after the trial court's ruling in this case), we held that the decision to admit or exclude evidence of this sort is a discretionary one. We said that although 'jurors may be familiar from their own experience with factors relevant to the reliability of eyewitness observation and identification, it cannot be said that psychological studies regarding the accuracy of an identification are within the ken of the typical juror'. Thus, there are cases in which testimony like [the expert's] may be admitted, in the exercise of the court's discretion; and indeed, there are cases in which it would be an abuse of discretion to exclude such evidence. This case is undoubtedly in the former category--the trial court here might well have admitted [the expert's] testimony--but we conclude that it is not in the latter; the trial court's ruling was within the bounds of its discretion.

(Id>. at __.)

The Court went on to conclude that, while the expert's testimony would "have been valuable to a juror in this case in assessing [the eyewitness's] testimony", the trial court properly excluded the evidence because the eyewitness's testimony was corroborated by other evidence of the defendant's guilt. Again from the majority's decision:

[I]f this case turned entirely on an uncorroborated eyewitness identification, it might well have been an abuse of discretion to deny the jury the benefit of [the expert's] opinions. The corroborating evidence, however, significantly diminishes the importance of the proffered expert testimony in this case [...]. Here, stolen property was found in possession of two of defendant's acquaintances; neither of them could have been the robber, since both were women; and one of them pointed to defendant as the person from whom she got the property. It was reasonable, under the circumstances, for the trial court to conclude that [the eyewitnesses] identification was quite unlikely to be mistaken, and that [the expert's] testimony would be an unnecessary distraction for the jury.

(Id. at __.)

I can buy this reasoning for a "harmless error" type analysis--if the proof of defendant's guilt is overwhelming, then any error in admitting the proposed expert testimony could be dismissed as harmless. But it seems odd that the admissibility of the evidence should turn on the strength of the People's proof. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court just handed down a decision finding fault with this type of reasoning as violating a defendant's right to present a defense. (See Holmes v South Carolina, 2006 WL 1131853 [available here] ["The point is that, by evaluating the strength of only one party's evidence, no logical conclusion can be reached regarding the strength of contrary evidence offered by the other side to rebut or cast doubt. [...] It follows that the rule applied in this case . . . violates a criminal defendant's right to have 'a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense.'"].) It is hard to square today's decision from the Court of Appeals with Holmes, because the Young decision seems to make the admissibility of otherwise relevant defense testimony dependent on the trial court's assessment of the strength of the People's case, and under Holmes this violates defendant's right to present a defense.

The Court's decision today in Young is a troubling continuation of the reasoning first set forth in the Court of Appeal's recent decision in People v Wardlaw, where the Court held the denial of a defendant's right to counsel at a suppression hearing could be dismissed as harmless because the proof of defendant's guilt was overwhelming and the jury's verdict would have been no different had the suppression hearing been successful (see my previous post on Wardlaw here). The upshot of this type of reasoning is that really, really, really guilty defendants have less protections because . . . well, they are so damn guilty that no mistakes in the process could possibly effect the outcome. This type of reasoning can't possibly be good for the integrity of the criminal justice system.

Judge G.B. Smith dissented in Young, noting "The majority's ruling misses the opportunity to hold that here, as a matter of law, where eyewitness identification is attenuated and possibly tainted, and corroborating evidence is weak, courts should allow expert testimony concerning eyewitness identification." (Young, __ NY3d at __.)

The Court of Appeals also handed down a related decision today, also dealing with issues concerning expert testimony related to eyewitness identification. More on that decision tomorrow.