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High Military Court Split on Human Lie Detector Issue

In a dramatic split decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces (CAAF) has ruled that the presence of "human lie detector" testimony in a court-martial is not necessarily enough to overturn the conviction of the accused. The powerful dissenting voices in the slip opinion, however, believe that significant errors were made in the case and that the accused’s appeal for relief was just and appropriate.

What Is "Human Lie Detector" Testimony?

Human lie detector testimony is testimony given by a witness on the stand which comments on the credibility of another witness. So, for instance, if a prosecutor were to ask a friend of the accused whether he or she thought that the accused was lying about the alleged crime, this would be considered human lie detector testimony.

Human lie detector testimony is not admissible in most courtrooms because it undermines the responsibilities of the jury. It is they that should determine whether or not a witness is credible—not a secondary witness who could be biased or not capable of making such a determination.

United States v. Martin

Sgt. Martin was convicted in a court-martial on one count of wrongful sexual contact with a Marine's wife while she slept. During the court-martial, the Marine himself (who was present at the alleged incident) gave testimony as the prosecution's witness and was cross-examined by the defense counsel. During these exchanges, the Marine had admitted that, initially, he wasn't sure that the incident had occurred—an admission that spiraled into questioning that crossed into human lie detector testimony.

Martin was convicted (resulting in a bad-conduct discharge), but appealed his case. The Navy-Marine Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) found that the prosecution's asking the Marine his opinion of his wife's credibility was human lie detector testimony-- but was immaterial to the final verdict. The court upheld the conviction.

The CAAF Decision

The CAAF heard appeals submitted by both sides of this case: Martin and his counsel asserted that the CCA was wrong by not recognizing that the Marine's testimony was materially prejudicial. The Judge Advocate General of the Navy responded to that allegation by submitted that defense counsel had invited the human lie detector testimony error with its line of questioning during cross-examination in the original court-martial.

Three of the CAAF judges ultimately agreed with the Judge Advocate General of the Navy: in the court-martial transcripts, the defense counsel had invited the prosecution's error by first approaching the topic of the Marine's opinion of his wife's claims and her behavior following the alleged incident. Martin had tried to argue that this issue was first broached by prosecutors, but to no avail. The majority writes that "the Government had a proper purpose in calling [the husband] to testify—he was a fact witness who attended Appellant’s party and could provide the panel members with significant details about the events leading up to the sexual contact, and he was sleeping in the same bed right next to CI when the sexual contact occurred."

However, writing in opposition to the ruling, Judge Stucky felt as if Martin had a legitimate claim to appeal his conviction. "As Sgt Martin’s fate hung on the testimony of an intoxicated victim and a witness with a track record of untruthfulness, [the Marine's] stamp of approval became, of necessity, a cornerstone of the Government’s case," Judge Stucky wrote, adding that the Marine's testimony "could not but affect the panel’s evaluation of [the victim's] credibility, and thus the Government’s case. Appellant has demonstrated 'a reasonable probability that the error affected the outcome of the trial.'"

Martin's conviction has been upheld and he will be discharged from service. This case is yet another example of why capable defense counsel is so crucial. Issues like human lie detector testimony can come up during the court-martial process and should be confronted and objected to as soon as possible. Untangling these complex errors in the appeals process can be difficult and-- as was the case here-- does not always result in a favorable outcome for the accused.

If you are an armed forces member facing a criminal allegation or an adverse administrative action, Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law is ready to hear from you. Attorney Jordan is a 10+ year veteran of the U.S. Army who now travels the globe to defend the rights, interests, and reputations of accused servicemembers.

You do have a choice in defense counsel. Contact our firm today to request a free case evaluation.

Categories: General, Military Law News

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