Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Another Decision on Expert Testimony on Identification Evidence

In People v Abney and Allen (2009 NY Slip Op 07668 10/27/09) the Court of Appeals considered two cases in which the defense was denied the right to introduce expert testimony on identification evidence. The Court applied the test it previously employed in People v Young (7 NY3d 40 [2006]) for determining whether such a ruling is error: was there was evidence which corroborated the identification evidence.

The Young standard in which a defendant’s right to present evidence is conditioned on the court’s perception of the strength of the People’s case appears to be in conflict with the holding of the United States Supreme Court in Holmes v South Carolina (547 U.S. 319 [2006]), that he right of a defendant to have a meaningful opportunity to present a complete defense cannot be conditioned of the perceived strength of a prosecutor's case.

But, as Monroe County Assistant Public Defender Jim Eckert points out, there is some good language in the decision which should be cited by counsel in other contexts. Specifically, in discussing whether the error of excluding the expert testimony in Abney was harmless the Court wrote that

"Finally, we do not consider the trial judge's error in Abney to have been harmless. While defendant's muddled alibi evidence was no doubt unhelpful to his cause with the jury, it is not overwhelmingly inculpatory either. And, of course, it is possible that defendant would not have pursued an alibi defense in the first place if Dr. Fulero had testified. " (emphasis supplied).

Thus, the Court recognized that the defendant’s strategy could have been altered by the court’s erroneous ruling and that the burden cannot be on the defendant to establish all of these consequences. In an analogous situation, the United States Supreme Court has held that whether a defendant’s confession was illegally admitted at trial and the defendant then testifies in his own defense, that testimony cannot be used at the re-trial, because it cannot be determined if the decision to testify was caused by the illegal admission of the confession. Harrison v United States, 392 US 219, 224-225 (1968). Quoting from the Court of Appeals decision in De Cicco v Schweizer (221 NY 431, 438 [1917]), the Court wrote that

It is, of course, difficult to unravel the many considerations that might have led the petitioner to take the witness stand at his former trial. But, having illegally placed his confessions before the jury, the Government can hardly demand a demonstration by the petitioner that he would not have testified as he did if his inadmissible confessions had not been used. ‘The springs of conduct are subtle and varied,’ Mr. Justice Cardozo once observed. ‘One who meddles with them must not insist upon too nice a measure of proof that the spring which he released was effective to the exclusion of all others.’ [citation omitted] Having ‘released the spring’ by using the petitioner's unlawfully obtained confessions against him, the Government must show that its illegal action did not induce his testimony.
Harrison v United States, 392 US 219, 224-225 (1968).

To read Justice Cardozo is to be humbled.

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