CT Defense Experts Can Question Eyewitness Testimony
By CHRISTIAN NOLAN
August 24, 2012
According to some scientific studies, what a person believes he or she is seeing during a high-stress situation -- such as a shooting or robbery -- may not be accurate. Increasingly, defense lawyers are asking judges to allow juries to hear expert witnesses explain such studies, in an attempt to discredit eyewitness testimony that may implicate their clients.
Following a state Supreme Court ruling on Aug. 23, it appears that significantly more of that type of testimony will take place in Connecticut criminal courts. In overturning its own precedent, the state's highest court ruled that jurors should be able to hear evidence that first-hand observations may be unreliable.
The ruling, according to experts, is part of a growing national trend. "Connecticut is on the leading edge," said attorney Lisa J. Steele, who argued the appeal in State v. Guilbert, in which a man was convicted of killing two people based on eyewitness testimony. California, Utah and Arizona are among the other states already allowing experts to testify about eyewitness perception issues.
Previously in Connecticut, such testimony was generally not permitted, as judges considered it to be common knowledge or common sense information that they could convey when charging the jury. But now, in certain cases, experts discussing the effects of stress and post-event information on memory, and the lack of a correlation between an eyewitness' confidence and the accuracy of his observation, will be allowed.
"It's big," Steele said of the state Supreme Court's opinion. "The court is saying this is good, solid science."
"It's a pretty major ruling," said Old Saybrook defense attorney Jeremiah Donovan, who has handled a number of high-profile murder cases. "Every time I hear of a witness who is sincere and certain — it gives me pause."
The Supreme Court case involves Brady "Fats" Guilbert, a New London man facing life in prison for the execution-style killings of two men — Cedric "Ceddie" Williams and Terry "T" Ross — in a car outside a New London bar named Ernie's Café. Guilbert also allegedly shot another man inside the bar, William "Double R" Robinson, who survived.
Guilbert appealed his conviction on grounds that the trial judge should have allowed his attorney to present expert testimony about the effects stress has on a witness' memory. A witness who claims he saw Guilbert inside the bar told police 10 days after the shooting that he recognized Guilbert's face, which had later appeared in a New Haven newspaper, as the shooter. The witness did not know Guilbert previous to the shootings.
The jury convicted Guilbert after deliberating for nine days. He was ultimately sentenced to life in prison.
Before the trial, the state made a motion to prevent the defense from presenting an expert witness to testify about the reliability of eyewitness identification. The judge agreed, ruling that such expert testimony was neither reliable nor relevant to the case, and, further, that it was well within the common knowledge of jurors that eyewitnesses might not always be right.
The excluded witness, Dr. Charles Morgan, is a medical doctor from Yale specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders, including those that affect how people think and remember when under stress. Morgan's research concludes that eyewitnesses descriptions of high-stress events cannot be taken at face value. He claims high stress levels impair thinking and memory formation.
Senior Assistant State's Attorneys John P. Gravalec-Pannone and Paul J. Narducci argued that none of the witnesses in this case were under the kind of stress indicated in Morgan's study and that the information wasn't appropriate for this case.
||Truth in Justice