Pennsylvania Supreme Court: Eyewitness Identification Expert Testimony Now Allowed

Filed under: Criminal Law, News by Contributor @ June 12, 2014

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently reversed longstanding precedent that held that experts could not render opinions about the validity of eyewitness identifications.  Now, after the courts recent 4-2 decision in Commonwealth v. Walker, that type of evidence is now admissible if the trial Judge, in her discretion, chooses to permit it.  This decision brings Pennsylvania back in line with most other states.  The decision was written by Justice Todd and joined by Justices Saylor, Baer, and McCaffery.  Chief Justice Castille and Justice Eakin each wrote dissents.  Former Justice Orie Melvin did not participate in the decision of this case.

At 1 a.m. on October 15, 2005, an armed robbery occurred near Drexel University in Philadelphia.  A man alleged to be the defendant approached a group of three Drexel students with a handgun and demanded their cell phones and money.  Two days later, the three victims met with police and identified the defendant in a photo array.  At 3 a.m. on October 28, 2005, a similar armed robbery occurred near the University of Pennsylvania.  The two victims of the second robbery were able to identify the defendant, though they were unable to identify his co-conspirator.  The only evidence connecting the defendant to either robbery was the eyewitness identification by the victims.

The defendant, charged with various crimes relating to the robberies, filed a motion in limine to present expert testimony about the fallibility of human memory and the reliability of eyewitness testimony.  This was denied by the trial court, and the jury found the defendant guilty of the charges related to the second robbery, though he was found not guilty of the charges related to the first robbery.  The trial court denied the defendant’s request based on existing case law in Pennsylvania that held expert testimony about eyewitness identification was inadmissible.  This was affirmed by the Superior Court for the same reason.

The majority opinion noted that only three other jurisdictions still had a per se exclusion for this type of testimony and that all federal circuits allowed it, citing the recent advances in scientific studies as evidence why.  They also did not agree with the Commonwealth’s argument that the testimony would be unfairly prejudicial because of the presence of the expert.  The Commonwealth argued that the jury would be able to assess the witness’s credibility without the presence of an expert, but the majority felt that the experts’ testimony would not speak to whether the witness was reliable, but rather would educate the jurors on how to assess witness credibility.  The court found that relying on cross-examination and closing arguments would not be enough to convey the potential problems with eyewitness identification to the jury.  To be admitted, this type of evidence must not only be beyond the knowledge possessed by a layperson, but must pass the Frye “general acceptance” test.

There were two dissenting opinions.  The first, by Chief Justice Castille, attacked the majority for accepting dubious information as science and failing to give practical guidelines to trial courts on how to use their newly found discretion.  His greatest concern was that the experts allowed by the majority would have such a strong influence that too many criminals would be found not guilty.  Additionally, Chief Justice Castille did not like the majority’s approach to rely on other courts’ review of the scientific material rather than reading through it themselves.  Justice Eakin dissented because he believed that the hired expert opinions would not make the job of the jury any clearer.  Justice Eakin shared a similar opinion to that of Chief Justice Castille, that juries would give too much weight to the testimony presented by these experts.  Additionally, Justice Eakin wrote that there would be many new costs at trial because of this ruling.

Let us know what you think of this decision in the comment section below.

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