Commonwealth v. Alicia
Pennsylvania Supreme Court, May 28, 2014
Over a month ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned both the Superior Court and trial court (Philadelphia County) and held that a criminal defendant was not allowed to introduce evidence about the nature of police interrogations and how someone accused of a crime could be persuaded to give a false confession (i.e., confess to a crime they didn’t commit).
Background of the Case
In the Alicia court case, the defendant was on trial for murder. The incident involved a shooting at a restaurant/bar in Philadelphia, when an innocent bystander was shot and killed during an altercation between two groups, one of which was Alicia’s group.
Alicia later confessed to being the shooter after being questioned for 6 hours by police, at the end of the interview. However, there was conflicting evidence from witnesses. At least two eyewitnesses gave conflicting information and identified other individuals as the shooter.
Use of a False Confessions Expert
Prior to trial, Alicia filed a Motion to Use a False Confessions Expert. Alicia intended to admit evidence that his IQ was well below average, in the mental retarded range and that he suffered from disabling mental illness most of his life. The proposed expert was expected to testify about police interrogation tactics and two different types of false confessions.
The District Attorney’s office fought the defendant’s use of the expert. However, the trial court held that the expert would be allowed to testify generally but was not allowed to offer an opinion about whether the specific confession was coerced or not. The DA’s office appealed to the Superior Court which agreed with the trial court. The DA’s office again appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which reversed the lower courts and held that under the facts of the case, the expert’s testimony invaded the province of the jury about assessing the truthfulness/credibility of a witness (i.e., the defendant).
Why the PA Supreme Court Got it Wrong
Eyewitness Identification Experts are Allowed in PA
On the same day it decided the Alicia case, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided another important criminal case, Commonwealth v. Walker. In that case, the court reversed prior case law and held that eyewitness identification experts may be allowed in certain cases. It basically removed the prior ban on eyewitness identification reliability experts, differentiating between the accuracy of an eyewitness id and the truthfulness of a confession. This is the problem. Questioning the accuracy of an eyewitness id and questioning the truthfulness of a confession is really just splitting hairs. The difference is minimal, if a difference exists at all. The common denominator is that there are unique psychological factors which affect someone’s ability to be truthful, and they are factors that the majority of people have no ordinary knowledge about.
In the Alicia case, the court stated, “Ultimately, we believe that the matter of whether Appellee’s confession is false is best left to the jury’s common sense and life experience, after proper development of relevant issues related to, inter alia, the particular circumstances surrounding the elicitation of his confession, using the traditional and time-honored techniques of cross-examination and argument.” (emphasis added)
The key here is that most ordinary citizens have never been arrested, held in a jail cell with other inmates, and otherwise been threatened with criminal charges. These things alone are factors which affect the psychological state of an ordinary person. Then consider heavy-handed police interrogation tactics. In order to truly assess truthfulness or credibility, juries need to hear about how these factors affect individuals in custody.
The reality is that coerced confessions are very common and also often result in false confessions. Read more about false confessions here.
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