Complainant Credibility

I found this article from the New York Times, on murder statistics in New York City, fascinating. (Subscription Required.)
More than 90 percent of the killers had criminal records; and of those who wound up killed, more than half had them.

"If the average New Yorker is concerned about being murdered in a random crime, the odds of that happening are really remote," Mr. Farrell said. "If you are living apart from a life of crime, your risk is negligible."

Criminologists confirm that assessment. "People will be shocked to see how safe it is to live in New York City," said Andrew Karmen, a sociology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an expert on victimology. "Victims and offenders are pretty much pulled from the same background. Very often, young victims have young killers. Very often, the victim and killer knew each other."

This is an interesting point. In murders, as in many crimes, the victims or complainants often have criminal records. That's how they end up running in the same circles, being in the "wrong places" at the "wrong times."

And, we, defense attorneys, recognize this, for the most part. Sometimes the complainants in our cases have longer criminal records than our clients. Does this justify our clients' crimes? Is it okay to murder someone who has been convicted of petit larceny? No. But if one person, with a long record of burglary, testifies that it was my client, with no criminal record, who committed a burglary, it seems obvious that maybe he's shifting the blame for his own crime.

It seems that the public often doesn't recognize this.

I had a conversation with another lawyer who, when we discussed criminal defense, said something like, "I don't think I could do your work, I couldn't work with all those convicts." Well, it may surprise you how often you probably are working with convicts, how many people you run into everyday that have criminal records.

But, moreover, it amazes me that many prosecutors don't recognize this. Or, maybe they do, and they choose to ignore it. But, when I say to a prosecutor, "My client says he didn't do it..." the typical prosecutor's reaction is, "I don't believe him, he's an accused criminal."

Ok, I can see where you get that from. But, what about the person you do believe? What about the fact that he is a a convicted criminal?

What happens a year from now, 2 years from now, when my client, who you can't believe now, is a complainant? Then you'll be willing to believe him above all else, and disbelieve whatever defendant stands accused at that point?

Can I be the only person who thinks this doesn't make any sense?


  1. I wonder if there's any academic research on this that you could try to admit in court as evidence of your client's innocence. I'm thinking if you have a client who has no record and a complainant w/a lengthy record, if you could show some persuasive statistics saying odds are very low your client did this, well, maybe....

    Nah, probably not.

    Incidentally, you can get to that NY Times article w/out a subscription here. You can access most NY Times URLs w/out subscription if you run them through this transmogrifier first.

  2. "Then you'll be willing to believe him above all else, and disbelieve whatever defendant stands accused at that point?"

    Of course! All defendants lie. All complainants tell the truth. And it doesn't matter whether they used to belong to the other group.

  3. Remember Bowling for Columbine? Compton is not that dangerous, nor are many other places people are scared of. Not that they are great places, but I've regularly ridden my bicylce through really bad areas and never been bothered, except a few times people tried to sell me drugs (probably cuz I was the only white person around and that's the only reason white people usally come around).

    But we all know what is dangerous: Being poor, having to deal with other poor people who lack conflict resolution skills, and who are angry for many justifiable reasons. When you get two poor people who lack conflict resolution skills together, no job skills, bad things happen. Those are our clients (well, except for the victimless crimes like drug possession and driving without a license cases).

  4. The part I find really interesting is where the article says that the streets are safe because most people who are murdered have criminal records.

    Right, the streets are safe because its only *those* people who are getting killed, not *real* people.

  5. Same thing happens here in Australia. Most ridiculous recent example in my experience was a fellow who was charged with Assault Occasioning Actual Bodily Harm, when he himself was beaten within an inch of his life after the alleged assault. Police first charged the other guy with Grievous Bodily Harm, dropped it at trial. That guy had a fairly serious crim record. Two years later, charge my guy (no record) with Assault occasioning, their evidence based on what the GBH accused told them (which they didn't believe prior to his trial day). Same prosecutor. Everyone's guilty. Of everything.