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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Friday, April 16, 2010

Eyewitness Account: Supreme Court Of Louisiana Precludes Expert Testimony On Inaccuracy Of Eyewitness Identifications

I have done several posts on this blog (here, here, here, here, here, and here) about the inaccuracy of regular and cross-racial eyewitness identifications and whether expert testimony about this inaccuracy should be allowed. In a recent post, I noted that "My general sense is that most courts allow such expert testimony although a decent number of courts, such as the Eleventh Circuit and Minnesota courts, preclude it." That post addressed a recent opinion in which the Supreme Court of Utah reversed past precedent and allow for the admission of expert testimony on the inaccuracy of eyewitness identifications. This post addresses a recent opinion, State v. Young, 2010 WL 1286933 (La. 2010), in which the Supreme Court of Louisiana adhered to prior precedent and refused to allow for the admission of expert testimony on the inaccuracy of eyewitness identifications.

In Young

East Baton Rouge Parish detectives responded to the late night shooting of two persons in a restaurant parking lot. Upon their arrival, the male victim, Aaron Arnold, was unresponsive with gunshot wounds to his upper body. He never regained consciousness and ultimately died from his injuries. The female victim, Dionne Grayson, was lying on the ground with gunshot wounds to her legs. She provided statements to detectives at the scene and hours after her admission to the hospital. Ms. Grayson informed detectives that, after leaving work, she and Mr. Arnold were in the process of putting gasoline in her vehicle when a white automobile occupied by two men pulled alongside them. She stated a black male brandishing a semiautomatic handgun exited the passenger front seat and demanded their wallets. Ms. Grayson claimed the individual shot them before they could fully comply with his request. She gave a description of the gunman's physical features.

Nancy Segura witnessed the attempted robbery and shootings. She was sitting in a vehicle in close proximity to Ms. Grayson's car, while waiting for a friend to leave work. She was not noticed by the assailants....

During the course of the police investigation, a confidential informant provided detectives with information regarding the involvement of Sanchez Brumfield, the getaway driver and the defendant's cousin. This led to information from Mr. Brumfield linking the defendant and his vehicle to the crime. Ms. Segura identified the defendant from a photographic lineup as the individual who shot Mr. Arnold and Ms. Grayson. Detectives ran the defendant's name in their computer files and learned that a white vehicle similar to the model described as being involved in the crime was registered to the defendant's home address. The defendant was later arrested. Near the time of the arrest, Ms. Grayson was presented with a photographic lineup and identified the defendant as the gunman.  

The defendant, Tracey Young, was eventually charged with first degree murder in connection with these crimes, and he sought, inter alia, to present expert testimony regarding the unreliability of eyewitness identifications. The trial court noted that in State v. Stucke, 419 So.2d  939 (La. 1982), the Supreme Court of Louisiana had deemed such testimony inadmissible because it improperly invades the province of jurors. The court, however, bought defense counsel's argument "that scientific advances in the study of eyewitness identifications since Stucke indicate[d] the probative value of the admission of expert testimony on the subject, when properly admitted, outweighs any prejudicial effect on the jury's decision-making process." Specifically, at a Daubert hearing,

The defendant's proposed expert, Dr. Roy S. Malpass, Ph.D., a Texas psychology professor, testified regarding his credentials and education. He summarized his publications, professional affiliations, past and present research in facial recognition and eyewitness identification, and prior acceptance in other jurisdictions as an expert in the psychology of eyewitness identifications. Following cross-examination, the State conceded the witness was an expert in the field of psychology, but urged that the psychology of eyewitness identification is not a discipline recognized in the scientific community. The court directed its own questions to Dr. Malpass. Subsequently, the court accepted the witness as an expert in the science of psychology with a special emphasis in the field of eyewitness identification.

Thereafter, Dr. Malpass testified that he had reviewed the police reports and found that the case presents issues of cross-race identification, gun focus, the effects of stress, estimates of confidence, and the impact of identification protocol on the outcome. He testified in general about these factors based on his research. Following the parties' submission of written argument on the issue of the admissibility of Dr. Malpass' testimony, the district court ruled that the defense's expert would be permitted to testify at trial.

Subsequently, the Supreme Court of Louisiana granted the State's application for certiorari and found that

Unquestionably, eyewitness identifications can be imperfect. However, upon review, the touted advances in the social sciences regarding the validity of eyewitness identifications do not render obsolete the underlying premise for which such evidence was held to be inadmissible in Stucke. There is still a compelling concern that a potentially persuasive expert testifying as to the generalities of the inaccuracies and unreliability of eyewitness observations, that are already within a juror's common knowledge and experience, will greatly influence the jury more than the evidence presented at trial....By merely being labeled as a specialist in eyewitness identifications, an expert has the broad ability to mislead a jury through the "education" process into believing a certain factor in an eyewitness identification makes that identification less reliable than it truly is....Moreover, expert testimony on eyewitness identifications can be more prejudicial than probative because it focuses on the things that produce error without reference to those factors that improve the accuracy of identifications. The expert testimony presumes a misidentification, in the absence of presenting factors which support the validity of the identification. This fosters a disbelief of eyewitnesses by jurors.

This Court has long been reluctant to allow experts to offer opinions on the credibility of another witness for fear of the expert invading what is considered the exclusive province of the jury. Moreover, the concept of promoting battles of experts over whether the testimony of every witness is truthful and reliable is not desirable. These considerations are especially compelling in cases involving eyewitness identifications where any alleged deficiencies could easily be highlighted through effective cross-examination and artfully crafted jury instructions....

With this in mind, we decline to overrule our decision in Stucke barring the admissibility of eyewitness identification testimony.

Thus, in Louisiana, expert testimony about the inaccuracy of eyewitness identifications is still inadmissible.

-CM

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2010/04/704-eyewitness--state-v-young----so3d------2010-wl-1286929la2010.html

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