A court has rejected the expert testimony of a Texas clinical psychologist who was brought in to testify on race-related trauma in the sentencing trial of a man who was convicted of first-degree murder.
On August 1, 2015, Marquis Wright stepped out of his relative’s house to smoke and noticed a relative’s car in front of the house parked in the wrong direction. A few minutes later, a Memphis police cruiser pulled up and shined a light on the car. Wright testified that his relative jumped out of the car, leaving the door open and ran away on foot. The police officer pulled Tremaine Wilbourn out of the passenger side of the car.
Wright would testify that Wilbourn and the police officer began to fight. Wright said, “He tried to push the officer off, pulled his gun out and started shooting.” The officer, Sean Bolton, died that night. An autopsy showed that he was shot eight times.
Wilbourn was charged with first-degree murder in connection with Officer Bolton’s death and the state sought the death penalty.
A jury convicted Wilbourn on charges of first-degree murder, using a firearm in the commission of a dangerous felony, being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun and carjacking.
At Wilbourn’s sentencing hearing, a member of his legal team and a mitigation specialist, Laurie Hall, testified about Wilbourn’s traumatic childhood. Hall told the jurors about his mother who had multiple arrests for prostitution and drugs and about an incident where his mother dropped him off at a children’s hospital and never came back.
Hall also detailed Wilbourn’s mental health history. He asked for mental assistance, but didn’t receive an appointment until July 2015, when he was diagnosed with depression with psychotic features and post traumatic stress disorder.
Wilbourn’s defense team also presented a Texas clinical psychologist to testify about race-related trauma. Psychologist Erlanger Turner was questioned by Judge Lee Coffee when the jury was out of the courtroom. Under questioning, Turner acknowledged that race-related trauma is not recognized by the scientific community. Turner also said that his research focuses on police shootings, but admitted that he was not aware that this case did not involve a police shooting, that Officer Bolton never fired at Wilbourn, and that Bolton’s gun never left his holster.
Judge Coffee ruled that Turner’s testimony was inadmissible. He said that he would not create a new section of the law that says “if you are a black male, you have the right to shoot a police officer, kill a police officer and then say, ‘I did this because I am suffering from racial-induced trauma.’” Of course, that is a mischaracterization of the testimony that the expert would have given.
After hearing all of the mitigating evidence, the jury sentenced Wilbourn to life in prison without parole. Following the sentencing hearing, Officer Bolton’s brother released a statement saying, “ We would like to thank the men and women of the jury, Judge Coffee, officers of the court and the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office. We would also like to thank the men and women of law enforcement in Shelby County who work so diligently to serve and protect. We see the sacrifices you and your families make to keep our community safe. Nothing can bring Sean back to us, but we take comfort in the fact that his murderer can never cause harm to anyone else in our community.”