The jobs of police and prosecutors just got tougher, which is not a bad thing when it comes to seeking justice.
Ruling on the appeal of a New London murder conviction, the state Supreme Court effectively mandated that Connecticut now join a growing number of states that will allow defense attorneys to call expert witnesses to the stand to attack the reliability of eyewitness identifications.
Despite ruling that the trial judge should have allowed the defense to provide evidence on the sometimes untrustworthiness of eyewitness accounts, the state's high court still upheld the conviction of Brady "Fats" Guilbert, saying the jury had ample evidence to convict him.
The jury convicted Mr. Guilbert in 2007 on multiple counts for the October 2004 murders of Cedric Williams and Terry Ross. The prosecution proved to the jury's satisfaction that Mr. Guilbert shot the two men, both in their early 20s, in the back of their heads as they sat in a car at the corner of Hope and Hempstead streets around 12:50 a.m. Oct. 9. The jury also convicted him for the non-fatal shooting of another man earlier that night.
Though it appears Mr. Guilbert, 34 at the time of his sentencing, will be spending the rest of his days in prison, his case creates an important precedent that will influence both legal strategies at many criminal trials as well as police procedures.
Until this case, Connecticut courts had blocked defense attorneys from calling experts to the stand to attack the credibility of eyewitness accounts. The best tool the defense had was questioning eyewitnesses on cross-examination and trying to raise doubts about the reliability of their accounts.
In writing the court's decision, Justice Richard N. Palmer pointed to a growing body of scientific evidence that eyewitness recollections can often be wrong and are subject to various influences. If the goal is justice, the court found, trial judges must allow a defendant to make his case on the issue of eyewitness reliability.
"The extensive and comprehensive scientific research, as reflected in hundreds of peer reviewed studies and meta-analyses, convincingly demonstrates the fallibility of eyewitness identification testimony and pinpoints an array of variables that are most likely to lead to a mistaken identification," wrote Justice Palmer.
Those variables can include cross-racial identifications, which tend to be less reliable, the stress that a gun or other weapon introduces, and the manner in which police question an eyewitness and potentially influence him or her.
We do not relish the idea that criminal trials will grow more complex and more costly as the parade of experts to the witness stand grows. And there is the danger of jurors being more confused than enlightened. But given the weight of the scientific evidence, we agree with the court that it would be unfair to defendants to hide this information from jurors. Justice Palmer rightfully stopped short of allowing experts to be called to give an opinion about the credibility or accuracy of a particular eyewitness, noting correctly that determination is up to the jury.
"Rather, the expert should be permitted to testify only about factors that generally have an adverse effect on the reliability of eyewitness identifications and are relevant to the specific identification at issue," Justice Palmer wrote.
Police will have to hone their investigation skills, being careful not to make suggestions to eyewitnesses. Police need to be aware of cross-racial identification problems and employ a healthy skepticism. And, as much as possible, police and prosecutors need to seek corroborating evidence to bolster eyewitness accounts.
The only greater tragedy than seeing a guilty person go free is having an innocent person convicted and imprisoned. The court properly followed that maxim in its decision.