Eyewitness Scientific Research Persuasive in Federal Court Ruling

In a ruling that may influence other courts in evaluating eyewitness testimony, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit unanimously upheld Western District U.S. Magistrate Judge Victor Bianchini’s decision to grant defendant Rudolf Young’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus and vacate his conviction of robbery and burglary.

According to Joel Stashenko writing in the New York Law Journal (here), the Circuit ruled in Young v. Conway (here) that prosecutors could not use the eyewitness testimony of Lisa Sykes, whose home was broken into in March 1991. While neither Lisa nor her husband William could identify Young in a photo array before a lineup, they identified him in the subsequent lineup. This identification was thrown out by the Appellate Division based on a determination that his arrest had been illegal.

At the retrial, the judge permitted Lisa Sykes, claiming that she could identify Young independent of the lineup, to make an in-court identification of Young.  Young was convicted again. The Appellate Division and the State Court of Appeals upheld the conviction prior to Bianchini’s vacating it.

Circuit Judge Barrington Parker supported Bianchini’s finding that Lisa Sykes’ identification was not admissible under the independent source test of United States v. Wade. The Innocence Project’s amicus curiae brief (here) effectively challenged Sykes’ reliance of her identification on her observation of the defendant during the crime. The perpetrator was draped in a blanket and wore a scarf that covered all but his eyes and forehead.

Sykes said her identification was based on Young’s “eyes and voice” during the crime that occurred in less than ten minutes.

The Innocence Project cited studies on eyewitness research that were not effectively challenged by the Monroe County prosecutors. The New York Law Journal article noted that Judge Parker mentioned the New Jersey Supreme Court’s recent reference in State v. Henderson to many of these same studies  as “the gold standard” of social science research applicable to the law.

A 2010 study, persuasively used by the Innocence Project in this case, was from “Evaluating Eyewitness Identification” by Brian Cutler and Margaret Bull Kovera: “…only 27 percent of eyewitness identifications of perpetrators wearing a hat were accurate versus 45 percent when the perpetrator was hatless.”

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