Monday NY Blawg Round Up
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Court of Appeals Allows Trial Court Broad Discretion On Evidentiary Decision

In People v. Young, 2006 Slip Op. 03261, the Court considered whether the trial court's "independent source" finding was incorrect as a matter of law and whether the trial court had abused its discretion by refusing to allow an expert to testify about factors that affected the reliability of eyewitness identifications.

In this case, the defendant was charged with Robbery and Burglary based upon allegations that he broke into a house while concealing most of his body and face underneath a blanket and a scarf.  One of the victims, Mrs. Sykes, failed to recognize the defendant in a photo array, but later picked him out of a line up after hearing his voice and viewing him, and also identified him at trial.  Also offered as proof of the defendant's guilt was evidence that binoculars and gloves missing from the Sykeses' cars were recovered from acquaintances of the defendant, one of whom testified that she'd received the binoculars from him.

At trial, the defendant sought to introduce the testimony of a psychology professor regarding the potential inaccuracies of eyewitness identification testimony.

The Court of Appeals first held that the trial court's "independent source" decision was correctly decided as an issue of fact  and the it correctly rejected the defense argument that as a matter of law:

(C)onsidering Mrs. Sykes's limited view of the robber, and the long lapse of time and the many intervening events — including the photo array and the lineup — between the crime and the independent source hearing, it was impossible to find by the requisite clear and convincing evidence that the lineup would not influence her in-court identification.

The Court deferred to the Appellate Division on the grounds that this was an issue of fact.  The decision that it was an issue of fact as opposed to one of law was made without any explanation, which I find troubling.   As I read it, had it been determined to be an issue of law, then the Court could have revisited the Appellate Division's ruling on this issue.  Accordingly, it would have been helpful if the Court had set forth the basis for its determination, since I'm not entirely convinced that it was an issue of fact.

The Court then moved onto the second issue.  The Court noted that:

(A) court's exercise of discretion in a case like this depends in large part on whether the "specialized knowledge" of the expert can give jurors more perspective than they get from their day-to-day experience, their common observation and their knowledge.  (Internal citations and quotations omitted).

The Court concluded that had the prosecution's case relied entirely upon an uncorroborated identification, it may have been an abuse of discretion for the trial court to refuse to allow the testimony, but since there was strong corroborating evidence in this case (the binoculars and gloves found with the defendant's acquaintances) the trial court's decision was within its discretion:

In reaching this conclusion, we consider two factors: the extent to which the research findings discussed by Brigham were relevant to Mrs. Sykes's identification of defendant; and the extent to which that identification was corroborated by other evidence. The first of these factors favors the admission of the testimony — so much so that, if the identification were not strongly corroborated, the exclusion of Brigham's testimony would be hard to justify. But the corroboration was strong enough for the trial court reasonably to conclude that the expert's testimony would be of minor importance...

It was reasonable, under the circumstances, for the trial court to conclude that Mrs. Sykes's identification was quite unlikely to be mistaken, and that Brigham's testimony would be an unnecessary distraction for the jury.

I'm not at all convinced that the identification was "strongly corroborated."  Arguably, the defendant's acquaintances were not exactly candidates for outstanding citizens of the year, and could have conceivably obtained the stolen items from another acquaintance of similar ilk.  That one "friend" testified to receiving the binoculars from the defendant is not convincing, given that people have been motivated to lie on the stand for any number of reasons, including revenge for having one's advances rejected by the accused,  in order to protect the true guilty party, or to avoid prosecution themselves.

As the Court concluded, the first factor strongly favored admission of the expert's testimony.  As a result, I disagree with the Court's determination that the trial court properly excluded his testimony, since the corroborating evidence was anything but strong, and the jury should have been allowed to hear and weigh the testimony.  The failure to allow the testimony improperly derailed any potential defense.

Eric, over Indignant Indigent, raised some interesting points regarding this decision in this post.

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