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Eyewitness Identification and Expert Testimony


In the case of People v. Abney the Court of Appeals decided two separate cases: People v. Quentin Abney and People v. Gregory Allen. In each of those case the issue was whether or not to admit expert testimony regarding the reliability of eye-witness identification.

The Facts of the Abney Case

In People v. Abney defendant was accused of robbing a woman at knife point. The allegation was that he ripped a chain off of her neck and fled. The victim identified Abney in both a photo array and a subsequent line up. At trial, prior to jury selection, defense moved in limine to introduce expert testimony concerning psychological factors of memory and perception that could affect the accuracy of witness identification. The defense identified a number of factors that the expert would testify to, including, but not limited to exposure time, event violence, cross-racial accuracy, lineup instructions, rate of memory loss, postevent information, lack of correlation of confidence and accuracy and confidence malleability. The trial court did not consider the case an appropriate one for an expert identification witness for several reasons. After the People rested the defense renewed the motion for expert testimony and again the trial court denied the defense motion holding that there was nothing unique about the case that was beyond the ken of the ordinary juror.

The Facts of the Allen Case

In People v. Allen, two masked men barged into a barber shop. One held what appeared to be a knife and the other displayed a gun. The two men robbed the people in the shop and then instructed everyone to lie down and then fled. One of the customers recognized the defendant Gregory Allen from his voice and body type as he knew him from the neighborhood.
The witness picked Mr. Allen out of a book of mug shots shown to him at the police precinct and two witnesses identified Mr. Allen as the knife-wielding robber in a police line-up.

At trial the Defense sought to introduce expert testimony regarding psychological factors of memory and perception that may affect accuracy of eyewitness identifications. The trial court denied the Defense application holding that the expert would not be helpful to the jury because the proposed testimony involved matters of common sense and life experience.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis of these cases by reviewing past decisions on the admissibility of expert testimony regarding eyewitness identification:

People v. Lee , 96 N.Y.2d 157 (2001).

Expert testimony proffered on the issue of the eyewitness identification is not admissible per se, but is in the sound discretion of the trial court, which should be guided by whether the proffered expert testimony would aid a lay jury in reaching a verdict.

Although jurors may be familiar with factors relevant to the reliability of the eyewitness observation and identification, it cannot be said that psychological studies regarding the accuracy of identification are within the ken of the typical juror. Because expert testimony may involve scientific theories and techniques, a trial court may need to determine whether it is generally accepted by the relevant scientific community.

People v. Young , 7 N.Y.3d 40 (2006)

To admit or exclude expert evidence on the reliability of eyewitness identification is within the trial court’s discretion. The trial court should consider whether the expert could tell the jury something significant that jurors would not ordinarily be expected to know already.

People v. LeGrand , 8 N.Y.3d 449 (2007)

Where a case turns on the accuracy of eyewitness identification and there is little or no corroborating evidence connecting the defendant to the crime, it is an abuse of discretion for trial court to exclude expert testimony on the reliability of eyewitness identifications if that testimony is (1) relevant to the witnesses identification of defendant, (2) based on principles that are generally accepted within the relevant scientificcommunity, (3) proffered by a qualified expert and (4) on a topic and beyond the ken of the average juror.

Admissibility of such testimony also depends upon the existence of corroborating evidence to link defendant to the crime. Where corroborating evidence is found, excluding expert testimony would not be fatal to a conviction.

People vs. Abney: the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and found that the trial judges error in Abney was not harmless.

Although it was reasonable for the trial judge to deny defendants pretrial motion as premature, at the close of the peoples direct case the trial court should have admitted the expert testimony because there was no evidence other than the victim’s identification to connect defendant to the crime.

The defendant asked to elicit testimony from the expert on the following topics: the effect of event stress, exposure time, event of violence and weapon focus, cross racial identification, lineup instructions, double-blind lineups, and witness confidence. All of these subjects except for lineup instructions and double-blind lineups were relevant to the identification of defendant. The principles relating to witness confidence are generally accepted within the relevant scientific community. They are also counterintuitive which places them beyond the ken of the average and juror.

Accordingly, the trial judge in Abney abused his discretion when he did not allow the expert to testify on the subject of witness confidence. With regard to the other subjects of effect of event distress, exposure time, event and violence and weapon focus, and cross racial identification – the trial judge should have conducted a Frye hearing.

People vs. Allen

The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in Allen reasoning that the conviction did not depend exclusively on eyewitness testimony or on accuracy of eyewitness identification. It was of critical importance that the defendant was independently identified as the knife-wielding robber and that the two witnesses who identified the defendant knew him from the neighborhood.