On May 28, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided in Commonwealth v. Alicia that expert testimony regarding interrogation techniques that could lead to false confessions is inadmissible at trial, reported The Legal Intelligencer.
The decision seems to be diametrically opposed to the court's decision on the same day abandoning its prior holdings banning expert testimony regarding the accuracy of eyewitness identification, finding that the decision of whether to admit such evidence should be left up to the trial court.
Justice McCaffery, writing for the majority in Alicia, said that while the high court had never previously addressed the admissibility of expert testimony concerning false confessions, it has previously rejected other types of defense expert testimony that infringe on a jury's ability to assess a witness' credibility.
"General expert testimony that certain interrogation techniques have the potential to induce false confessions improperly invites the jury to determine that those particular interrogation techniques were used to elicit the confession in question, and hence to conclude that it should not be considered reliable," McCaffery said.
McCaffery acknowledged that the Indiana Supreme Court, the Florida District Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit have all allowed expert testimony on false confessions.
But McCaffery said he found more compelling the U.S. District Court for the Tenth Circuit's rationale for precluding such testimony in the 2010 case United States v. Benally.
Like the Benally court, McCaffery said allowing expert testimony regarding false confessions is "an impermissible invasion of the jury's role as the exclusive arbiter of credibility."
McCaffery added that allowing defendants to submit expert testimony that certain interrogation techniques have a propensity to elicit false confessions would not be constructive because the prosecution would likely counter with its own expert testimony that the same techniques typically elicit true confessions.
"Ultimately, we believe that the matter of whether appellee's confession is false is best left to the jury's common sense and life experience, after proper development of relevant issues related to, inter alia, the particular circumstances surrounding the elicitation of his confession, using the traditional and time-honored techniques of cross-examination and argument," McCaffery said.
In a footnote, McCaffery addressed his support of the Walker ruling (eyewitness identification), saying "the accuracy of an eyewitness identification is a matter readily distinguishable from the veracity of a confession to a crime."
"In assessing the reliability of an eyewitness identification, the issue is generally not whether the victim or witness is telling the truth—the victim or witness is often entirely and honestly convinced, and convincing to the fact-finder, that he or she has correctly identified the true perpetrator," McCaffery said. "The issue is rather whether the witness' identification is indeed accurate."
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