The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals last Friday found that the State’s illegal use of polygraph evidence at Marqueze Smith’s trial was “obvious, indisputable error” that requires a new trial.
Marqueze Smith, a young construction worker with no significant criminal history, was prosecuted for capital murder in the death of a local drug dealer nine years after the man’s death, after another man charged with the murder pleaded guilty to a lesser charge in exchange for testifying against Mr. Smith. That man’s testimony was the State’s only evidence that Mr. Smith participated in the crime, and it was undermined by initial statements the witnesses made to police that did not implicate Mr. Smith.
To shore up their witness’s testimony, prosecutors introduced and argued evidence that the witness had taken a polygraph test and the results showed that his first statements (which supported Mr. Smith’s defense) were untruthful but the later ones (which supported the State’s theory) were true. Mr. Smith was convicted and sentenced to death.
On appeal, EJI argued that the polygraph evidence was illegal and requires reversal of Mr. Smith’s conviction. The Court of Criminal Appeals agreed, based on longstanding Alabama law that polygraph tests are inadmissible because lie detectors are not reliable and there is a “danger that the jury will be overawed” by the polygraph results.
“A review of the record in this case,” the court concluded, “leaves little doubt that the jury likely would have used the polygraph evidence to decide that the State’s main witness was telling the truth, and, in its closing argument, the State asked the jury to do just that.” Because Alabama courts have not allowed defendants to use polygraph results to prove their innocence, the State cannot be allowed to use it to prove the defendant’s guilt.
The court rejected the State’s argument that the illegal evidence didn’t make any difference at Mr. Smith’s trial, finding that the witness’s testimony was “crucial to the State’s case” and, without it, the court doubted the State could have convicted Mr. Smith.
The court held that the polygraph evidence was plain error and reversed Mr. Smith’s convictions and death sentences.