Is Conviction Despite ''Controversial Reliability'' of Arresting Officer's Testimony Possible ?
In People v. Cunningham, 212 Ill. 2d 274, 278, 818 N.E.2d 304, 288 Ill. Dec. 616 (2004) our supreme court recently addressed the issue of witness credibility.
In that case, the defendant was convicted of possession of a controlled substance.
At trial, the State presented testimony of the arresting officer and the stipulated testimony of a forensic chemist to prove the defendant's guilt.
The appellate court reversed the trial court's finding of guilt, concluding that the "'whole scenario as described by the arresting officer was unworthy of belief.'" Cunningham, 212 Ill. 2d at 278, quoting People v. Cunningham, 333 Ill. App. 3d 1045, 1050, 777 N.E.2d 478, 267 Ill. Dec. 675 (2002).
Our supreme court reversed the decision of the appellate court, holding that although several aspects of the arresting officer's testimony remained subject to question, there was no proof that his testimony included lies or errors, and the fact finder could reasonably accept his statement s as beyond a reasonable doubt that he saw the defendant holding a bag that contained cocaine. Cunningham, 212 Ill. 2d at 282-85.
In reaching its conclusion, our supreme court rejected the State's contention that the fact finder's determination of witness credibility is conclusive and reaffirmed that "the fact finder's decision to accept testimony is entitled to great deference but is not conclusive and does not bind the reviewing court." Cunningham, 212 Ill. 2d at 280.
The court also held that "it is for the fact finder to judge how flaws in part of a witness's testimony affect the credibility of the whole." Cunningham, 212 Ill. 2d at 283.
The court then discussed several cases, including People v. Schott, 145 Ill. 2d 188, 582 N.E.2d 690, 164 Ill. Dec. 127 (1991), People v. Quintana, 91 Ill. App. 2d 95, 234 N.E.2d 406 (1968), and People v. Coulson , 13 Ill. 2d 290, 149 N.E.2d 96 (1958), where the reviewing court properly found that flaws in testimony made it impossible for any fact finder to reasonably accept any part of it.
In Schott, the witness contradicted her previous sworn testimony, was an admitted liar, and had motive to falsely accuse the defendant.
In Quintana, the police officer contradicted another State witness and, because he had harassed and threatened the defendant in attempt to persuade him to become a police informant, had motive to fabricate. In Coulson, the witness's description of the alleged armed robbery "'taxed the gullibility of the credulous.'" Cunningham, 212 Ill. 2d at 284, quoting Coulson, 13 Ill. 2d at 296.