Thursday, February 15, 2007

Eyewitness ID Research: Generally Accepted Science? (People v. LeGrande, NY Court of Appeals)

On Wednesday, the New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in People v. LeGrand, a case in which the trial judge last year refused to admit expert testimony (PDF) on the reliability of eyewitness identifications, and further held that such evidence is unreliable under the "general acceptance" standard set forth in Frye v. United States.

The case stems from a murder that occurred in upper Manhattan in 1991, and the first lead on a potential culprit emerged a full seven years later, when investigating officers showed a photo array including Mr. LeGrand to witnesses. Based on a seven year old memory of the events, one witness claimed that Mr. LeGrand was the killer; other witnesses admitted that they saw "similarities," but stopped short of making a positive ID -- and others could not make an ID at all. The first trial resulted in a hung jury, but the second ended with a conviction and a 25-year-to-life sentence for Mr. LeGrand.

On appeal, the core issue is whether or not the trial court should have admitted expert testimony on the reliability of eyewitness identifications, particularly in a case where the only ID occurred seven years after the incident, there was a weapon involved, and other issues tending to reduce the reliability of eyewitness identifications were central to the sole evidence purporting to connect Mr. LeGrand to the murder.

During oral arguments yesterday, at issue was Saul Kassin's survey on the "general acceptance" of various issues relating to eyewitness evidence, including the "weapon focus effect" -- an important issue in this case (in addition to confidence-accuracy correlation, the effect of post-event information on eyewitness memory, and confidence malleability). Kassin's survey revealed that 87% of experts polled found the "weapon focus effect" to be reliable and supported by the scientific research, yet the trial court judge refused to allow testimony on the subject, and further found that it is neither reliable nor generally accepted in the relevant scientific community.

This case was expertly briefed by the Center for Appellate Litigation in New York, with amicus support from the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defenders of Harlem, and the New York State Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. Definitely a case to watch, and thanks to Kate for the heads up.

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