Thursday, March 18, 2010

We disagree, but we won’t say why

The majority in Morgan v R [2010] NZSC 23 (16 March 2010) do not explain why they reach the opposite conclusion to that of the dissenting Chief Justice. All Justices agreed that the issue came down to whether there was unfairness in admitting the contested evidence. The Chief Justice explained in detail why she thought there was unfairness. In the absence of a detailed response by the majority we are left feeling some disquiet about the soundness of the majority's conclusion.

Here the contested evidence was a statement previously made by a witness who was now hostile to the extent that he claimed not to remember the events in issue, and the making of any previous statement about them.

In contrast to the earlier position, under the Evidence Act 2006[NZ], any statement that is admissible is admissible to prove the truth of what it asserts. Where a witness is declared hostile, a relevant previous statement by that witness can become admissible. It may be elicited in cross-examination by the party that called the witness: s 94, or the Judge may permit such cross-examination even if the witness is not hostile: s 89. If the witness is hostile to the extent of refusing to be cross-examined, it is arguable that he is not a "witness" within the definition of that term, and his prior statement is hearsay. But even if it is not hearsay, fairness should require reasonable assurance that the statement is reliable when the s 8 discretion to exclude it is being considered.

The matter comes down to this (as expressed in the majority judgment):

"[41] Parliament has legislated to make previous statements of a hostile witness admissible as proof of their contents without adoption, presumably on the basis that the witness will be subject to cross-examination. The reality of that premise may differ from case to case. Parliament's policy decision should not be undermined by too ready a resort to s 8. It certainly should not be undermined on any generic basis. The ultimate question will always be whether the evidence is unfairly prejudicial in all the particular circumstances of the case, of which opportunity for realistic cross-examination will always be important."

The majority considered that in this case the witness had implicitly adopted his previous statement when he was cross-examined by the prosecutor. But this was on the basis of the last two questions in the critical passage, whereas the Chief Justice put these in a larger context and concluded that the witness had consistently refused to acknowledge the previous statement. Because she gave more detailed reasons, she is more convincing on this point.

The majority held that difficulties that might have arisen if defence counsel had attempted to cross-examine the witness on the prior statement were not such as to give rise to unfairness. No elaboration of that was offered. So we don't know why it was fair to admit the statement. The Chief Justice explained her conclusion by pointing out that in this case there was no other evidence sufficient to provide a reasonable assurance that the prior statement was reliable. The majority alluded to "a number of circumstantial features pointing to Mr Morgan's involvement, established elsewhere in the Crown's evidence" (para 45).

Still, the case is authority for, or illustrates, the following points: statements are admissible for their truth; admissibility is subject to s 8; there is a need for particular care to avoid unfairness when there can be no cross-examination of a hostile witness; the judge should hear evidence in voir dire before ruling on admissibility and should include an exploration of the witness's willingness to be cross-examined.

A significant omission from the factual narrative is whether the witness, a cell-mate of the accused, knew what the accused was charged with at the time he reported to the police that the accused had confessed. The Court of Appeal judgment summarises the facts ([2008] NZCA 537):

"[27] Mr Roskam shared a cell with the appellant shortly after the appellant was remanded in custody. Mr Roskam said in a statement to the police that he and the appellant had been watching a programme called “Police 10-7” which featured the robbery at issue in the present case. The appellant became very excited, and subsequently (some days later) told Mr Roskam that he had committed the robbery."

In the absence of this important fact, I will assume that the cell-mate knew, at the time he reported the confession, what the accused was charged with.

On that basis, the majority judgment contains a logical fallacy. It is fundamental but easily overlooked:

“[45]  One of the matters that will have significance in the s 8 assessment is the view that the Judge forms of the inherent reliability or otherwise of the statement in issue.  In this case Mr Roskam’s statement that Mr Morgan had confessed to him, in an apparently spontaneous manner, his involvement in the robbery was substantially supported by a number of circumstantial features pointing to Mr Morgan’s involvement, established elsewhere in the Crown’s evidence.”

This was not a case where the alleged confession contained details that only the offender could have known. It amounted simply to the accused, watching a news item about the robbery on television in a cell with Mr Roskam, allegedly yelling out “yeah, yeah!”, getting excited, and saying it was him (see para 8, the passage from the prosecutor’s cross-examination of Mr Roskam). Therefore, the “number of circumstantial features” that the majority say supported the reliability of the statement in issue (that is, Mr Roskam’s statement that the accused confessed) were not in the alleged confession but were indicative of the accused’s guilt. But here the majority confuse proof that the alleged confession had been made with proof that the alleged confession was true. The latter is not a substitute for the former. Just because a person may be guilty does not mean he is likely to have confessed.

The question is, "does this evidence, the confession, exist?" The majority say that if the confession existed it would fit with other evidence against the accused, therefore the confession existed. You can see the circularity. If the confession did exist, then the other evidence would indeed be useful in assessing whether it was true; but we have not got to that stage yet. To decide whether the confession existed, we would have to assess the credibility of the witness and that would include examining his honesty and whether there was any incentive for him to lie. He was endeavoring to retract his evidence, and that would be a relevant factor too. If the evidence of the existence of the confession was of sufficient value to have a tendency to prove that the confession existed, then it would be relevant evidence. Then its probative value would have to be assessed, and weighed against its unfairly prejudicial effect. The probative value could be assessed in Bayesean terms as a likelihood ratio: the probability of the witness saying that the confession existed, on the assumption that the accused was guilty, divided by the probability of him saying it existed, given that the accused was not guilty. If the witness had low credibility, he might have been almost equally likely to say that the confession existed, whether or not the accused was guilty. The likelihood ratio, or the probative value of his claim that the confession existed, would be very small. The risk of unfair prejudice would outweigh the probative value, because the jury would be likely to attach too much weight to the witness's claim that the confession existed.

After conscientiously advising care in the application of s 8, the majority misapply it to the probative value of the confession instead of to whether the confession existed. It is difficult to accept that a judgment flawed in this way can enhance the standing of the Court.

Of course, if Mr Roskam did not know what the accused was charged with, the other evidence of guilt would support his credibility. If that fact had existed, however, it would have been highlighted in the judgments. 

People interested in the real politik of law will note the distancing between the Chief Justice and Wilson J, and the apparent collegiality between Wilson J and the other judges whose judgment he delivered (Blanchard, Tipping and McGrath JJ). Ho hum. And flash forward! "I think, but dare not speak."

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