Lebanon News

Defense team expert talks witness reliability at STL

BEIRUT: Expert witness Dr. Siegfried Sporer provided evidence on the reliability of witness memory for the defense team of Hassan Oneissi before the Special Tribunal of Lebanon Monday. Oneissi is one of four individuals accused of orchestrating the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005. The bombing killed Hariri and 21 others.

“We always work on the assumption that the witness wants to tell the truth ... but in reality, one always has to think of alternative interpretations,” Sporer said, explaining that individuals can easily distort the truth unknowingly and perpetuate non-truths without malice.

“All of those dangers have to be considered. Over the history of law, there are errors that lead to miscarriages of judgment. ... We never know if an account is correct or not, even with DNA evidence and witnesses identify the person who has committed a crime.”

Sporer, a former professor of psychology in Europe and the United States, has focused his research on eyewitness testimony, face detection and detection of deception.

Defense counsel Natalie von Wistinghausen, representing the interests of Oneissi, led Monday’s direct examination.

While the number of trials with false witness identification is not overwhelmingly high, Sporer noted that convictions were extremely difficult to appeal.

“In cases, it has been proven beyond original doubt that the original person convicted could not have been the suspect, eyewitnesses have played a major role,” he said.

Sporer spent the entirety of Monday’s hearing speaking generally on issues of witness identification. It is expected that he will go into direct details of Oneissi’s case Tuesday.

Notably absent on the first day of the Oneissi team’s defense case was its head counsel, Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse. The lawyer, who has previously been criticized for his low-attendance record, will not be attending Tuesday’s hearing. It remains unclear whether Courcelle-Labrousse will be present at Sporer’s cross-examination later in the week.

Monday’s hearing marks the end to a contentious five-month hiatus that saw souring relations between the Trial Chamber and the Oneissi defense team. Following the conclusion of the prosecution’s case in February, lawyers for Oneissi attempted to acquit their client of his charges. They argued that insufficient evidence had been brought forth by the prosecution.

The team’s appeal was overruled.

Shortly after, the defense team sought to disqualify President of the Trial Chamber Judge David Re, Judge Janet Nosworthy and Judge Micheline Braidy from the STL altogether. Yet again, their appeal was dismissed. Re, who has consistently pushed to expedite the trial without compromising justice, made note of the delays caused by the Oneissi defense team.

“You were supposed to come in April, but there was an application to disqualify [judges of the trial chamber] that was rejected,” Re said after Sporer was ushered to the stand.

“We couldn’t schedule last week due to short notice so we’ve effectively lost four weeks of hearing time. But at least you’re here now.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 15, 2018, on page 3.




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