Illinois embraces eyewitness expert testimony


Today’s landmark decision by the Illinois Supreme Court in People v. Lerma will contribute to greater accuracy and fairness in criminal trials. Previously, expert testimony about eyewitness identification was disfavored in Illinois, based largely on the Court’s previous decision in People v. Enis. Criminal court judges routinely denied defense requests to call eyewitness identification experts even in prosecutions based solely on eyewitness testimony.

In today’s Lerma opinionhowever, the Court reviewed the current social science research on eyewitness error and the leading decisions from other state courts, and concluded:

“[I]n the 25 years since Enis, we not only have seen that eyewitness identifications are not always as reliable as they appear, but we also have learned, from a scientific standpoint, why this is often the case. Accordingly, whereas Enis allowed for but expressed caution toward the developing research concerning eyewitness identifications, today we are able to recognize that such research is well settled, well supported, and in appropriate cases a perfectly proper subject for expert testimony.”

Expert testimony is critical because many contributing factors to mistaken identifications are not known to the average person. For instance: (1) an eyewitness’s certainty does not necessarily correlate to accuracy; (2) cross-racial identifications are less accurate than same-race identifications; (3) the presence of a weapon causes a witness to focus on the weapon rather than the person, increasing the likelihood of a mistaken identification; (4) the stress of experiencing a crime makes it difficult to correctly identify the offender. These are but a few examples of principles that may be unfamiliar or counterintuitive to the average juror, but can be explained by an expert based on scientific research.

Truly, the Lerma decision is a game-changer for future Illinois criminal trials. I can attest to this from personal experience, having been devastated when a judge excluded an eyewitness expert from the trial of a client whom I wholeheartedly believed was innocent, but who had been identified in a questionable identification procedure.

Mr. Lerma was ably represented by Linda Olthoff of the Office of the State Appellate Defender. The Innocence Network, of which the Center on Wrongful Convictions is a member, filed an amicus brief written by a wonderful team of attorneys from Quarles & Brady.

It is a good day when the law catches up to science.

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