Supreme Court Permits Expert Testimony Regarding Eyewitness Testimony

imageOne of the most difficult aspects of trial practice is that eyewitness testimony, considered by many to be the evidentiary “gold-standard,” is actually one of the least reliable forms of proof we deal with in a courtroom.

Studies confirm these common issues with eyewitness testimony:

  • witnesses mistake what they see
  • witnesses misremember what they experience
  • witnesses misidentify who they saw
  • witnesses inaccurately describe others

Yet, jurors report that they rely heavily upon eyewitness identifications, especially those made by victims of crimes, even to the point of disregarding other competent evidence, such as alibi testimony.

Until recently, there was not much a Pennsylvania trial lawyer could do to combat a flawed eyewitness identification. Pennsylvania courts refused to permit experts to explain the science and causes of mistaken identification to the jury, believing that the field of study was too new and had not yet been accepted by the scientific community. However, it appears as though that is now changing.

Exciting development: Pennsylvania Supreme Court lifts ban on expert testimony regarding eyewitness identification (Commonwealth v. Walker Pa. 2014)

Pennsylvania trial courts now have the discretion to permit experts to explain to the jury about the factors and circumstances that contribute to mistaken identification. Whether the trial judge ultimately permits the testimony will depend on the expertise of the witness, the circumstances of the case, and whether the testimony will help the jury make an informed decision. This does NOT permit an expert to determine whether a particular identification is correct, or whether a particular witness is mistaken. Experts will merely be permitted to explain the science of eyewitness accuracy and recollection, which will hopefully allow the jury to come to a more educated determination.

This is an exciting development in trial practice. The study of eyewitness science is continuing to grow, and is raising important questions about validity of eyewitness testimony and the role it plays in the courtroom. This ruling may open the door to other topics in the field, such as cross-racial identification, which deals with the difficulty people have making accurate identifications across racial lines. If nothing else, perhaps this will bring the problems associated with eyewitness testimony to the attention of the public. It is important that the public realize that form of evidence is highly overrated and often mistaken.

Posted on December 3, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Supreme Court Permits Expert Testimony Regarding Eyewitness Testimony.

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