Via CDW comes this fantastic new paper by Jules Epstein, which examines the problems with eyewitness identification testimony and the short-comings of using cross-examination to challenge it. It is a must read for the practitioner. The first 40 pages or so trace the history of eyewitness identification and of cross examinations and their place in our adversarial system. Then it underscores the need for expert testimony in eyewitness ID cases by shattering the myth propagated by judges and appellate courts that cross-examination will bring out any untruths.
That is because, often, eyewitness testimony does not contain untruths. The problems associated with eyewitness testimony are such that it is nearly impossible to expose them on cross.
1. Cross racial IDs: How does one go about questioning a witness regarding this sensitive issue, which has been demonstrated to be a serious problem in identifications? One cannot simply ask a witness if he/she is better at identifying people of their own race or if they are aware that studies show that such a bias exists.
2. Weapons focus:
The entire premise of weapons focus is that it is often a subconscious phenomenon—without realization of the occurrence, the witnesses’ eyes are drawn toward the weapon. It is precisely the extent to which the witness is unaware of the diverted attention that cross-examination proves ineffective.
This might be the only area where it is possible to do something on cross. As the example in the paper illustrates, the cross can elicit significant details about the weapon, thereby proving (or sowing seeds of doubt) that the witness was not focused on the face, but rather on the weapon.
However, the problem still remains that many jurors believe that a weapon increases attention overall and makes the eyewitness more reliable.
3. Stress: One can easily prove the fact of stress, but it is almost impossible to prove the impact or consequence of stress via cross. These are scientific results and ideas that cannot be elicited through the lay witness on the stand and often-times, the witness will use stress to affirm their recollection.
4. Memory Retention and the Confidence-Accuracy disconnect: This is another one that’s impossible to establish on cross. Asking a witness whether their memory has gotten worse over time and that just because they think they’re right doesn’t mean they’re right will result in them simply re-affirming their identification.
5. System variables (sequential lineup, double-blind, etc.): What can be established via cross is the occurrence of imperfect ID procedures, but not the significance, as with stress above. So the witness was not told that the suspect may or may not be in the lineup. What does it mean to the reliability of the ID? How are you going to get that out on the cross of anyone, including the cop?
So what is to be done? One method – the example used in the paper – is the one I prefer. To go over the events in a chronological order, breaking it down into tiny, tiny bits. One piece of information at a time.
Of particular importance is the technique of “time-framing”—the art of breaking the event or crime into a series of discrete acts, each in isolation.
I’d like to hear from you, my practitioner reader. What have you found useful? Has anything worked at all? I seriously doubt we’ll ever get the “aha!” moment during the cross of an eyewitness.
What I think this paper does is gives us a roadmap to arguing the admissibility of expert testimony. The offer of proof is one thing, but setting up why it is necessary goes a long way to informing the judge that he/she should admit the testimony. This paper lays out all the reasons why it is necessary to inform the jury of the pitfalls of eyewitness testimony. Use it. Even if you don’t get the expert testimony in, it gives you leverage to argue to the judge that you need to either ask jurors about it or be able to argue some of it in closing and have the judge give a detailed instruction on the fallibility of eyewitness testimony.
I’ve uploaded it here [pdf]. It’s available for free from SSRN, so I figured I could make it available here too. If that’s a problem, someone let me know and I’ll take it down.
(Courtroom sketch: Wired News/Norman Quebedeau)