Correct, but Wrong: SCOTUS on Unreliable Eyewitness Identification

In this Information Age, it is hard to grasp sometimes that everybody does not know everything. And yet it is so. It is common knowledge, for example, that dinosaur fossils are the bones of creatures that lived scores of millions of years ago, that terrorist hijackers flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and that eyewitness identification testimony is statistically as reliable as a ’78 Chevy. And yet there are tons of people who sincerely believe that fossils are just a few thousand years old, that the U.S. government conducted 9-11, and that an eyewitness I.D. is the be-all-and-end-all of Truth.

Actually, it’s not fair to lump the I.D. believers in with 9-11 conspiracy theorists, Genesis literalists, truthers and the like. The others are sort of fringe-y. But if you put 12 ordinary citizens in a jury box, of good intelligence and sound common sense, and the victim points dead at the defendant and says “there is no doubt in my mind, THAT is the man who raped me…” you can almost hear all twelve minds slamming shut. They’ve heard all they need to hear. So far as they’re concerned, this case is over.

This despite the fact that study after study after study reinforces the fact that eyewitness testimony sucks.

And innocent people go to jail — or worse — because of it.

So you can imagine how keen the legal world was to get the Supreme Court’s decision in Perry v. New Hampshire, which came down yesterday. Perry, identified by an eyewitness as someone she’d seen breaking into cars, argued that Due Process required a judicial hearing on the reliability of that testimony before it could be admitted at trial.

Which was the exact wrong thing to argue.

Due Process requires that the government makes sure that it does not do things that make its identification procedures unreliable. It does not require that a judge do the jury’s job. Particularly when that job — weighing the reliability of a given bit of testimony — is incredibly fact-specific.

And especially given all the evidence of all the various factors that go into making eyewitness testimony unreliable — racial differences, time lapse, focus of attention, lighting, familiarity, stress, presence of a weapon, etc. — what judge in his right mind is going to want to be the one deciding whether this particular eyewitness’s memory is good enough?

So it’s hardly any surprise that the Supreme Court balked at Perry’s Due Process argument. By a vote of 8-1 (former prosecutor Sotomayor as the lone dissenter, none better to know the power of the EW ID) the Supremes held that, unless law enforcement is alleged to have gotten the I.D. under unnecessarily suggestive circumstances, there’s no Due Process issue and certainly no reason for a pre-trial hearing on reliability.


No, what Perry could have argued for is either (1) a rebuttable presumption, as a rule of evidence, that eyewitness testimony is inadmissible; or (2) allowing defendants to provide jurors with all the reasons why eyewitness testimony is not as reliable as they might think.

The first option is, frankly, stupid. But it’s the logical conclusion from the givens presented in his argument and those of the various amici, that eyewitness testimony is about as per se unreliable as it gets. If we can be forgiven a straw man here, it’s akin to the proscription against most hearsay. Hearsay is not permitted unless it’s deemed exceptionally reliable. So why not have the same rule for eyewitness testimony? Because hearsay is not prohibited because of its unreliability. It is prohibited because it cannot be tested, cross-examined, challenged. It’s a confrontation issue, not a reliability issue. Hearsay that is allowed comes in because it is so reliable that confrontation just isn’t an issue (in theory). Evidence is not precluded because it is unreliable. If something is unreliable, it is up to the other side to make sure the jury sees how unreliable it is.

As Justice Scalia implied during oral argument, unreliable eyewitness testimony is no different from any other unreliable evidence. But in practice, it is treated very differently. Sure, a judge might let the defense attorney cross-examine the witness on the lighting conditions, whether she had a gun in her face, and whatnot. And maybe the judge will let him make common-sense arguments to the jury in his closing about why that identification was wrong. But few if any will allow the defense to put on expert evidence demonstrating why this particular testimony might be wrong.

Eyewitness testimony is almost unique in this regard. Any other evidence the government might put on, the defense gets to put on its own evidence of why the government’s was wrong. Their expert says the stolen trade secret was worth a billion dollars? Your expert can testify why it was worth $12.98. Their witness says the bullet was fired from the apartment across the street? Your expert can show that it came from down the block and was deflected on striking the window. But if their witness testifies that she recognizes your client as the guy what done it, can you put on an expert to show that people of her race distinguish faces by looking at features that aren’t all that variable in people of the defendant’s race? Or that almost nobody with a gun shoved in their face in a dark alley for five seconds is going to form a clear memory of what the shover’s face looked like? Or that now, three years later, after countless retellings and waking nightmares and reassessments, the witness’s memory is nowhere near as accurate as it seems?

In most states, the answer is No. It’s either prohibited, or it’s up to the discretion of a trial judge, who’s likely to say no. (And the usual reason for prohibiting such testimony, irony of ironies, is that it’s such common knowledge that expert testimony is unnecessary.)

What Perry should have argued for, then, is to do exactly what Scalia suggested: treat eyewitness testimony like any other kind of testimony. Give defendants a chance to pry open those minds that snapped shut during the in-court I.D. Give defendants a chance to confront the evidence against them in a meaningful manner. When everyone in the world except for jurors, apparently, knows that eyewitness memory is godawful, give defendants the chance to educate them, at least to the extent that it applies to that particular case. While you’re at it, let jurors be instructed on factors affecting reliability if you like (as suggested by the majority opinion), but if you believe jury instructions make a difference one way or the other…

It’s not a Due Process issue. It’s a Confrontation issue. Allowing the defense to confront eyewitnesses and challenge their presumed accuracy is the issue. It’s not about shifting the fact-finding role to a pre-trial hearing, to assess things beyond the government’s process. Perry’s argument strikes us as not only stupid, but a waste of a perfectly good opportunity to have made some progress in this area. As it is, we may now be stuck in the status quo a few years longer than we might have been.

Thanks a lot.



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