A witness who observes or knows about criminal acts is essential to a prosecutor’s case. This testimony is so important that it could be the difference between a defendant being acquitted or convicted. Consequently, courts have developed certain rules about how an eyewitness can testify to a court in a way that is not biased toward the defendant’s right to a fair trial.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently ruled in one case called Commonwealth v. Christian German where two issues about eyewitness testimony came up:
- Eyewitness identification
- Expert opinion
What happens when police ask you to identify a someone accused of committing a crime?
In this case four women who worked at a restaurant in Lawrence were leaving work at about 3 AM. One of the women called a taxi for her and two of the other women to share. As the women were entering the cab, an unknown man approached with a gun and demanded their possessions. After one of the women tossed her valuables to the ground, the woman who was not taking the taxi called 911 while the others escaped in the taxi.
Police later apprehended a suspect in a nearby park. The suspect was the defendant in this case. When police performed a pat frisk they discovered a single round of ammunition on him. Officers then read him his Miranda Rights and put him in handcuffs.
Later, one of the officers tracked down two of the women. He wanted to transport them one-by-one to where the defendant was detained in the park but the women insisted that they go together because they were afraid. When the women were asked if the man in handcuffs was the same man who robbed them they both simultaneously agreed that he was the one. When asked how certain they were they both said “one hundred percent.”
Is evidence of an eyewitness identification allowed in court?
The court tried to answer two key legal questions:
- If both witnesses simultaneously identify a detained suspect in a “showup” identification, is that unfair to the defendant?
- Is a witness’ degree of certainty admissible evidence?
What is a show identification?
Showup identification is when police present a single suspect to an eyewitness and then ask the eyewitness whether the suspect committed the crime. In the past, the court ruled that while these types of identifications are inherently suggestive, they are not necessarily forbidden evidence. It is the job of the defendant in court to show that a showup identification went too far and was biased.
Sometimes a showup identification is necessary based on the way a crime was committed. Valid reasons could include:
- Public safety
- Efficient police investigation
- Confirm accuracy of information
However, if police did not have a good reason to do this type of identification or the procedure was especially unfair, a defendant can successfully argue that allowing this evidence in court should not be allowed.
In this case the court agreed with the Commonwealth that this evidence was okay to admit in court. The judges agreed that because the witnesses were scared and refused to be separated police had no other choice but to do the showup identification with both of them together. Ideally both witnesses should be separated and special instructions need to be read before the identification begins. However, in this case there were special circumstances that allowed an exception to be made.
What is certainty evidence?
Certainty evidence is evidence of how sure a witness is that something did or did not occur. Examples could include:
- “No way!”
- “Maybe” or “Possibly”
- “75% chance” or “100% sure”
There are different ways of expressing certainty. People may express certainty through words or with numbers. In any case, it is the job of the court to determine how much this type of evidence should be weighed.
The defendant tried to make the case that an expert witnesses needs to testify on how reliable certainty evidence is before it is admitted. Although the court says that jurors need to be cautious when dealing with this type of evidence, an eyewitness is allowed to testify about their certainty. In the end, the court determined that there was no problem with the way the witnesses testified about their certainty that the suspect was the one who committed the crime.
Why is eyewitness testimony important?
Eyewitness testimony is a very important part of a criminal trial. An eyewitness testimony could persuade a judge or jury to go in either direction. It is the job of courts to make sure that the defendant’s right to a fair trial is protected. But it is also their job to protect evidence of criminal acts.
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