last month the New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in People v. LeGrand, a murder case in which the trial judge last year refused to admit expert testimony (PDF) on the reliability of eyewitness identifications, and further held that such evidence is unreliable under the “general acceptance” standard set forth in Frye v. United States.
Today, New York’s high court reversed (PDF) the conviction, on grounds that it was an abuse of discretion for the trial court to exclude expert testimony on the reliability of of eyewitness identifications. With respect to the lack of correlation between confidence and accuracy and “the effect of postevent information on accuracy and confidence malleability,” it is error to exclude expert testimony in a case in which the identification is central and there is a lack of corroborating evidence.
In short, the law on expert testimony on eyewitness ID in New York now appears to be:
It is an abuse of discretion to exclude an ID expert when:
- The case turns on an uncorroborated eyewitness ID; and
- The subject matter of the expert’s testimony is generally accepted by experts in the field and beyond the ken of the average juror.
And the following factors affecting eyewitness reliability are both generally accepted and beyond the ken:
- Lack of correlation between confidence and accuracy;
- The adverse effect of confirming feedback on eyewitness accuracy; and
- The malleability of eyewitness confidence.
On the above topics, the court at least implied that Frye hearings would no longer be necessary to establish general acceptance prior to admission of expert testimony. The court did not find the “weapon focus effect,” however, to be generally accepted among the relevant scientific community, despite substantial research on the subject.
As previously reported, the case was expertly briefed by the Center for Appellate Litigation in New York, with amicus support (PDF) from the Legal Aid Society, Neighborhood Defenders of Harlem, and the New York State Criminal Defense Lawyers Association..