No ‘Experts in Credibility’: What Maryland Law Says About Witnesses Opining About Whether Another Witness Should Be Believed

In many criminal matters that make it to trial, the difference between an acquittal and a conviction is which side’s witnesses the jury finds more believable. To ensure you have the benefit of a fair trial, the law forbids the prosecution from doing or saying certain things that would tend to bolster unfairly the credibility of its witnesses. Keeping out this kind of inadmissible evidence often requires a well-stated and well-timed objection, which one reason why is any accused person’s case can benefit from the services of a skilled Maryland criminal defense lawyer.

The prosecution of E.C. in Montgomery County is a prime example of this sort of inadmissible evidence.

In April 2022, the accused man stood trial in a multi-count sex crime case. The state’s central witness was the alleged victim. In addition to the alleged victim, the prosecution also presented a physician who spoke to the alleged victim. The physician testified that the alleged victim’s comments and statements were “credible.”

The state also introduced testimony from a forensic interviewer and a state investigator. Both witnesses stated that nothing had occurred that would give them a belief that the alleged victim’s statements were the result of coaching.

The defense objected, but the trial court allowed this evidence in. The defense’s properly timed objections were nevertheless crucial because, even though the trial judge overruled them, the defense attorney’s act of making them “preserved” the issue for an appeal.

On appeal, the man secured a reversal of his conviction. The Maryland Supreme Court has been very clear that, in a criminal trial, “the credibility of a witness and the weight to be accorded the witness’ testimony are solely within the province of the jury.” Under Maryland law, there is no such thing as an “expert in credibility” and witnesses – expert or otherwise — are not allowed to offer their opinions about whether or not another witness was truthful or believable.

Providing Methods of Assessment, Not Conclusions

The law allows experts to give juries frameworks for making determinations or, as the court put it, “advise the jury on how to assess a witness for signs of fabrication.” The law does not allow witnesses to “provide [their] own conclusions on the credibility of the primary prosecution witness.” In other words, a witness giving the jury tools for making credibility decisions is permissible but a witness doing the work for the jury is not.

That, the appeals court said, was what happened in E.C.’s case. When the witnesses testified that there was nothing to lead them to believe that the alleged victim had been “coached,” that was tantamount to the witnesses testifying that, in their opinions,  the alleged victim “was being truthful,” which is what Maryland law prohibits.

Getting a trial that does not include improper credibility bolstering of prosecution witnesses is essential to accused people like E.C. The state had no corroborating witnesses to back up the alleged victim’s story. The state also had no “physical or forensic evidence tending to establish that” criminal sexual contact had occurred. The state’s entire case rose and fell on whether or not the jury believed the alleged victim. In circumstances like this, admitting improper credibility bolstering testimony is rarely harmless and almost always requires a new trial.

As this trial demonstrates, the difference between an acquittal and a conviction can come down to whether or not you keep potentially harmful but legally inadmissible evidence away from the jury. Skilled legal counsel can be crucial in doing that. The experienced Maryland criminal defense attorneys at Anthony A. Fatemi, LLC have extensive knowledge and a proven track record of diligently and effectively advocating for our clients. Contact us today at 301-519-2801 or via our online form to set up your consultation.

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