Friday, September 30, 2011

Wrongful Convictions and the Exclusion of Expert Testimony on False Confessions

The headline in today's Rochester Democrat and Chronicle was that Mark Christie had pled guilty to the 1988 murder of Viola Manville. This plea follows the April 28, 2010 vacateur of the 1992 Monroe County murder conviction of Frank Sterling for that very murder. (For a detailed account of the Frank Sterling case, see).

As was the case with such other wrongful conviction exonerations in which the Fourth Department had affirmed the wrongful convictions, such as that of Freddie Peacock, Douglas Warney, and Betty Tyson, the primary evidence against Mr. Sterling was a false confession.

Additionally, since 1992 there was evidence that Mark Christie had accurately confessed to the murder for which Mr. Sterling was charged. And yet after Mr. Sterling was convicted, the court refused to even hold a hearing on a 330 motion based on the evidence of Mr. Christie's admissions. And then the Appellate Division, Fourth Department affirmed the conviction (209 AD2d 1006 [4th Dept 1994]), rejecting arguments that the confession was unreliable and that a hearing should have been ordered.

When more witnesses came forward with evidence that Christie had committed the murder a 440 motion was filed and denied. Again, the Appellate Division, Fourth Department affirmed the ruling denying the innocent Mr. Sterling a new trial (267 AD2d 1053 [4th Dept 1999]).

Mr. Sterling then moved, pursuant to CPL 440.30(1-a, for DNA testing. This motion was denied (6 Misc3d 712 [Mon Co 2004]), on a finding that "the defendant has failed to demonstrate that a reasonable probability exists that a more favorable outcome at trial would have been forthcoming had the results of any DNA testing of the http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifaforementioned items been introduced at his trial." The Appellate Division, Fourth Department affirmed the ruling denying the innocent Mr. Sterling access to the evidence which would eventually help prove his innocence (37 AD3d 1158[4th Dept 2007]).

Ultimately, despite these court rulings, testing was done and Mr. Sterling's innocence was established. The courts' reliance on a false confession after a twelve hour interrogation, of which only 20 minutes were recorded, led to the repeated affirmance of a wrongful conviction. As a result, Mr. Sterling was in prison for 18 years for murder he did not commit.

False confessions are present in about a quarter of the wrongful convictions exonerated by DNA evidence (see). Clearly, not just juries, but appellate courts, have difficulty recognizing and distinguishing false confessions from reliable one. Yet, in People v Walker (4th Dept 9/30/11)) the Court held that a trial court

did not err in refusing defendant’s request to allow defendant to present the testimony of a false confessions expert. It is well established that the admissibility of expert testimony is addressed primarily to the sound discretion of the trial court (see People v Cronin, 60 NY2d 430, 433), and here we conclude that the court properly determined that the expert did not possess a professional or technical knowledge that was beyond the ken of the average juror (see People v Hicks, 2 NY3d 75).

By not requiring the admission of such testimony or the giving of an adverse inference instruction regarding the failure to record interrogations (see) the Court is insuring that future juries will credit statements obtained after unrecorded interrogations in future cases, sometimes from innocent defendants..

1 comment:

  1. So what legitimate reason could there be to keep out the testimony of an expert who would explain how and why people falsely confess? I mean really, what would it hurt? This is the best the Court can come up with: "we conclude that the court properly determined that the expert did not possess a professional or technical knowledge that was beyond the ken of the average juror."

    Really? Apparently the members of the court never, ever go to cocktail parties, where (as those of us who do go to cocktail parties are aware) it's common knowledge and roundly agreed that "I'd never confess to a crime I didn't commit."

    It's hard to tell whether decisions like this stem from simple prosecutorial bias or a failure of imagination, but ultimately it doesn't matter; the result is the same.

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