Eyewitness Reliability Expert Testimony Permitted

The Tennessee Supreme Court has a reversed its previous position and determined that it will permit juries to hear evidence from qualified experts on the reliability of eyewitness identification.  The Court had ruled that such testimony was not admissible in 2000.

Now, in State v. Copeland, the Court has reached a different result.  After reviewing advances in the field over the last few years, the Court said:

"In our view, it is far more likely for the jury to accredit the eyewitness than the expert. If eyewitness identification is a cornerstone of the criminal justice system, the jury is its foundation. It is also our view that the test in McDaniel is sufficient to allow the trial court to properly evaluate the admissibility of expert testimony on the reliability of eyewitness identification. To the extent that Coley holds otherwise, it is overruled. The essential role of the judge, as the neutral arbiter in the trial, is to govern the admission of the evidence within the rules, permitting only that expert testimony which substantially assists the jury in its consideration of the issue. The McDaniel test provides the trial judge with the necessary guidelines to properly exercise his or her discretion."

The Court also ruled as follows:

"In our view, Dr. Brigham’s testimony satisfies the requirements of the McDaniel test in that it is reliable and would have been of substantial assistance to the jury. The proffered testimony was based upon solid empirical data gathered in a scientific setting. The information was subjected to a thorough peer review process. His opinions were formulated from extensive research and would have given the jury a valuable context within which to assess the eyewitness identification. Moreover, the trial judge, who saw and heard the witnesses firsthand, expressed a desire to allow the testimony as particularly helpful under the circumstances of this case."

The Court held that the exclusion of the testimony was reversible error.

The case number is E2002-01123-SC-DDT-DD; it was decided on May 23, 2007.  Read the decision here.