People v. Powell
Factual Background: Howard Powell was charged with two counts of first-degree robbery following the robberies of two separate complainants. Upon arrest he made multiple statements admitting to both robberies.
Powell’s intellectual functioning was within the “borderline range,” he had a seizure disorder, and suffered from both mental health and substance abuse issues. He alleged that, during the interrogation, he was deprived of food and necessary medication, and suffered physical abuse at the interrogating detective’s hands.
The defense sought to call an expert to testify about the dispositional and situational factors that have been recognized as contributing to false confessions. At the subsequent Frye hearing, the expert described multiple dispositional and situational factors presented by Powell’s interrogation. Faulting the expert for not being familiar with the specific circumstances of Powell’s medical history, and asserting that Powell failed to establish the expert’s testimony was “readily acceptable in the scientific community,” the court denied the request.
Issue Before the Court: Whether the trial court abused its discretion in denying Powell’s motion to present expert testimony on the topic of false confessions and cross-racial identifications.
Held: In a 4-3 decision, the majority did not find the denials to be an abuse of discretion.
As highlighted by Judge Rivera in dissent, the majority improperly conducted a fact-bound Daubert analysis in response to a Frye question. Because Powell satisfied the Frye test by establishing that the science of false confessions was generally accepted in the relevant scientific community, the majority’s foray into the goings on in social science laboratories and the like was irrelevant.
While discussion of the false confession testimony has predominated most Powell autopsies, the majority also upheld the trial court’s denial of the defense’s request for a cross-racial identification expert, finding that the identification was sufficiently corroborated by, among other things, the confession (this is not a joke). The denial of expert testimony on both false confessions and unreliable cross-racial identifications presages a dangerous oversimplification of phenomena that have sent countless innocent people to prison. It seems that the majority has been infected with the same strain of hubris that has been plaguing society at large since March 2020: the false belief that they know more—and better—than the science.