On May 28, 2014, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania decided the case of COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Jose ALICIA, Appellee, 2014 WL 2208138, 27 EAP 2012. TheCommonwealth had filed a motion to exclude any expert testimony concerning the phenomenon of “false confessions” at the defendant’s upcoming murder trial. Judge Ben Lerner of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas entered an order permitting use of the evidence and the Superior Court affirmed, 26 A.3d 1190. The Commonwealth’s petition for allowance of appeal was granted,44 A.3d 1147.
Justice McCaffery wrote for the majority (a 4-2 vote; Justice Stevens was on the panel in the Superior Court) that expert testimony on the phenomenon of false confessions and police interrogation techniques would impermissibly invade the jury’s exclusive role as the arbiter of credibility. General expert testimony that certain interrogation techniques have the potential to induce false confessions improperly invites the jury to determine that those particular interrogation techniques were used to elicit the confession in question, and hence to conclude that it should not be considered reliable. Furthermore, were the defense permitted to offer expert testimony concerning interrogation techniques that might lead to false confessions, the Commonwealth could seek to present rebuttal expert testimony that the same techniques elicit true confessions, in substantially greater numbers than false confessions. Justice McCaffery wrote that expert testimony as to such generalities would not help the jury to understand the evidence presented or to determine the veracity of the Appellee’s confession. The matter of whether a confession is false is best left to the jury’s common sense and life experience, after proper development of relevant issues related to the particular circumstances surrounding the elicitation of the confession, using the traditional and time-honored techniques of cross-examination and argument.
Please note that in Commonwealth v. Walker, 2014 WL 2208139 (Pa. 2014), the Court lifted the absolute prohibition against expert testimony concerning eyewitness identifications, investing judgment about the admissibility of such evidence within the sound discretion of trial judges.