Wednesday, August 27, 2014
It is well established that (except in New Mexico), polygraph evidence is generally admissible. But assume that a defendant fails a polygraph exam and then makes a confession. And assume that the defendant claims at trial that he confessed based upon threats as well as promises of lenient treatment by the prosecutor. Should the prosecution be able to rebut such a claim by making reference to the polygraph exam? That was the question addressed by the recent opinion of the Appellate Court of Illinois, First Division, in its recent opinion in People v. Gater, 2014 IL App (1st) 101982-U (2014).
In Gater, the facts were as stated above, with Darin Gater claiming that his confession was coerced. The trial court responded by allowing the prosecution to reference Gater's polygraph exam, prompting his appeal.
The appellate court began by noting that
the rationale behind the exclusion of [polygraph] evidence is "twofold. On the one hand, the results of polygraph examinations are not sufficiently reliable to be used to prove guilt or innocence. On the other hand, because of their quasi-scientific appearance, the results of polygraph examinations are likely to be given undue weight in the minds of jurors. The possibilities for prejudice are obvious; jurors will assume that the polygraph is reliable. Jurors do not have the experience or technical skill to understand that a reported 'failure' might in fact be a 'pass' or vice versa, much less that 'inconclusive' is not another word for 'failure.'"
That said, the court then noted that
In People v. Jefferson, 184 Ill.2d 486 (1998)..., the supreme court created an exception to the general rule against admitting polygraph evidence, holding that when a criminal defendant makes an inculpatory statement and later asserts that the statement was coerced or induced by promises made by investigatory authorities, the State may present evidence of the defendant's polygraph exam to rebut the claim of coercion....The admissibility of polygraph exam evidence is permitted in such limited circumstances because "[w]hen the witness who took the polygraph changes his or her version of events surrounding statements to police at trial, the jury is left with a mistaken impression about the circumstances prompting those statements [Citation]. Only one narrative is presented—that of the witness who has changed his or her version of events since making statements to police. In these instances, prohibiting the State from introducing polygraph evidence would permit the defendant to take unfair advantage of the rule against admission of such evidence. [Citation]. The polygraph evidence essentially serves as a surrogate rebuttal witness."...Accordingly, to disallow polygraph evidence after a defendant advances a claim of coercion “would only succeed in permitting the defendant to unjustifiably profit from [the] general rule that bars introduction of evidence relating to polygraph testing."
Applying this analysis, the court concluded that
Here, the trial court committed no error in allowing the State to introduce the polygraph evidence. Once defendant testified about the circumstances surrounding his inculpatory statement to police and asserted that his statement was induced both by threats as well as promises of lenient treatment from ASA O'Brien, evidence of defendant's earlier polygraph exam became relevant and admissible to provide additional context for his confession....Specifically, the polygraph evidence was admissible for the limited purpose of providing an alternative explanation for the timing and rationale behind defendant's confession and show that defendant admitted to his crime after being confronted with his polygraph exam results rather than in response to ASA O'Brien's purported threats and promises.