Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Seeing and believing

Eyewitness identification evidence may need to be treated with some circumspection, and juries are usually given a direction on the special need for caution before relying on such evidence. In some jurisdictions, these warnings are required by statute, although, as is the case in New Zealand, the points required to be covered are not spelt out in great detail. The common law antecedent of these directions is known as the Turnbull direction, originating in the English Court of Appeal’s decision R v Turnbull [1977] QB 224.

In Edwards v R (Jamaica) [2006] UKPC 23 (25 April 2006) the Privy Council indicated that there are some practices that should not be permitted at trials where identification is an issue and the prosecution relies on evidence of an eyewitness to the offence. These are:

(1) The eyewitness should not be permitted to identify the accused in the dock as the offender. The prosecution should, in general, adopt other means for establishing that the accused is the person who was arrested (para 22):

"… it is only in the most exceptional circumstances that any form of dock identification is permissible: cf the discussion in the Scottish devolution appeal Holland v HM Advocate [2005] UKPC D1, 2005 SLT 563. It may be borne in mind that this was far from being a first identification and it can fairly be said that the dock identification may have had little impact on the minds of the jury. It is, however, an undesirable practice in general and other means should be adopted of establishing that the defendant in the dock is the man who was arrested for the offence charged."

(2) A police officer should not be permitted to give in evidence his opinion on why an ID parade was not considered to be necessary (para 23).

(3) The police should not give in evidence the fact that a warrant was obtained for the arrest of the accused, or of the information on which the police acted, as this is hearsay and potentially highly prejudicial (para 23).

(4) The police should not give in evidence the fact that a potential witness was unwilling to come forward (para 23).

(5) The police should avoid confronting the eyewitness with the suspect (para 25).

There is, at this point – para 25 – a possibly unintentional suggestion by the Board that hearsay evidence might be given to establish the link between the person described to the police as the offender, and the suspect:

"The arresting officer would have been quite capable of establishing that the appellant was the person pointed out to him by Bailey [the eyewitness] near the Mango Tree Bar, so it was unnecessary to ask Bailey to come to the station to confirm that."

This, however, should be read as referring to "establishing" in an investigatory, pre-trial, sense, and not as "establishing" in evidence at trial.

In this case, the eyewitness to the killing had been standing next to the victim, and the bullet that killed the victim had passed through the eyewitness. The offender had been trying to rob the eyewitness, who suddenly and unsuccessfully tried to grab the gun. The eyewitness was hospitalised for 4 weeks, and it was 2 months after the killing before he saw the accused near the same bar. He claimed that the accused was the offender. In his first description of the offender, given 5 days after the incident while he was in hospital, the eyewitness failed to mention a prominent birthmark on the accused’s face, he was unable to say what sort of trousers the offender was wearing, and he claimed that the time he had to observe the offender was a couple of minutes although it must have been shorter than that. The circumstances in which the offender was observed were good: inside a bar in the morning with good lighting.

The Privy Council was concerned that there could have been an erroneous association of ideas arising from the location of the offence and the subsequent identification being similar, and that the judge had not adequately warned the jury of the dangers in accepting the evidence. The conviction was therefore unsafe.

In New Zealand, the Evidence Bill 2006, clause 122, almost exactly repeats the current provision on the need for judicial warning: Crimes Act 1961, s 344D. The slight difference is that instead of requiring the judge to "include the reason for the warning", the Bill requires the judge to "warn the jury that a mistaken identification can result in a serious miscarriage of justice". The need for a warning arises "In a criminal proceeding tried with a jury in which the case against the defendant depends wholly or substantially on the correctness of 1 or more visual or voice identifications of the defendant or any other person …". The inclusion of voice identification is new to the Bill.

The Bill contains other provisions relating to the admissibility of visual identification evidence. It is important to note that here the concern is with admissibility, not with the way admissible evidence is treated at trial. These provisions, for visual identification, are in clause 41, and they concern the implications of whether or not a formal identification procedure was used at the investigatory stage. The criterion for admissibility is proof, on the balance of probabilities, that the evidence is reliable. The Bill does not say to what extent, if any, this reliability should be assessed by reference to the other evidence in the case. It seems plain that the other evidence should not be included in the assessment of the reliability of the visual identification evidence, and that the focus should be on the circumstances in which the identification was made.

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