People v. Lerma, 2016 IL 118496 (January 2016). Episode 132 (Duration 5:16)
Illinois Supreme Court acknowledges that the legal landscape for eyewitness expert testimony has dramatically shifted from novel and uncertain to settled and widely accepted.
See also Podcast 027 summarizing the lower court on this eyewitness expert testimony issue.
State of Eyewitness Testimony
Eyewitness misidentification is now the single greatest source of wrongful convictions in the United States, and responsible for more wrongful convictions than all other causes combined.
We not only have seen that eyewitness identifications are not always as reliable as they appear, but we also have learned, from a scientific standpoint, why this is often the case.
Today we are able to recognize that such research is well settled, well supported, and in appropriate cases a perfectly proper subject for expert testimony.
Hostile Trial Judges
This trial judge abused his discretion in not allowing the defense to present an eyewitness expert witness.
The judge denied this expert because the judge felt that persons are less likely to misidentify someone they have met or know or seen before than a stranger. The judge’s bias against this type of expert lead him to conclude that the expert testimony would generate a referendum on the efficacy of identification testimony generally and operate as an opinion on the credibility of the eyewitnesses themselves.
Can’t Keep Ignoring The Findings
The IL Sup. Ct. concluded that there is no question that this is the type of case for which expert eyewitness testimony is both relevant and appropriate.
Especially in this case where the expert’s report directly addressed both of these points and stated the very opposite of what the trial court had previously assumed.
The report clearly stated that the factors impacting the reliability of eyewitness identifications can operate even when the witness is previously acquainted with the accused, and the expert would be careful to not include any opinion as to the credibility of any specific witness or any specific identification.
Thus, in relying on its own personal beliefs about how eyewitness identifications function as the primary basis for denying the admission of the expert’s testimony, the trial court in this case not only ignored the explicit contents the expert’s report but also effectively substituted its own opinion on a matter of uncommon knowledge for that of a respected and qualified expert.