A recent unanimous decision by the Illinois Supreme Court will change the way Illinois juries are informed about eyewitness identification evidence by permitting the testimony of experts in cases involving identification evidence. The Innocence Network filed an amicus brief urging this holding.
On January 22nd, the state supreme court affirmed the reversal of Eduardo Lerma’s conviction, finding that the trial court erred in refusing to allow experts to testify about research on eyewitness identifications during Lerma’s trial. The court further held that its 1990 decision in
People v. Enis
, which led to expert testimony on eyewitness identification being customarily rejected by judges in criminal trials, was out of step with decades of scientific research, the substantial role of eyewitness misidentification in causing wrongful convictions and the changing legal landscape. Illinois joins state supreme courts in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Kansas who have, in recent years, made expert testimony on eyewitness identification more accessible to defendants.
As the court explained, “… [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,” the judges wrote. “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.”
The case involved the May 2008 shooting death of Jason Gill. Mr. Gill was sitting on the front steps of his home shortly before midnight with his friend Lydia Clark when a man in a hoodie approached them and shot, hitting Gill. Before he died, Gill told his father that “Lucky” shot him. Witnesses testified that Eduardo Lerma, Mr. Gill’s neighbor, was known as Lucky. Clark also identified “Lucky” as the shooter, later selecting Lerma from a lineup. She also provided conflicting reports of what she actually saw. Lerma’s attorney asked the trial judge several times during the trial to allow experts on eyewitness identification to address the factors that could have led to the misidentification of Mr. Lerma, but the judge refused.
Lerma remains at Stateville Correctional Center while prosecutors decide whether to retry him.
Read the Illinois Supreme Court decision