A judge has limited the proposed testimony of an expert witness called by Taylor Swift in her sexual assault legal action against a former radio DJ. Swift called a professor of gender studies to testify about the profile of men who commit sexual assault, however, the federal trial judge ruled that this type of expert testimony would not be permitted in the litigation.
Taylor Swift Proposes Gender Studies Expert
David Mueller, a former radio host in Denver, was accused by Taylor Swift of inappropriately reaching his hand underneath her skirt and groping her during a backstage meet-and-greet at a June, 2013 concert event. Mueller, who was fired by his radio station two days after the alleged groping incident, has maintained that he did not grab the pop-star during a photo opportunity, and filed a lawsuit against her for slander and making false claims which cost him his job and prevented him from working in his profession. Swift claims that it was Mueller who touched her inappropriately during the event, and countersued for claims of sexual assault and battery.
As we covered here, Taylor proposed to call as an expert witness Dr. Lorraine Bayard de Volo, who is a Women and Gender Studies professor at the University of Colorado-Boulder. During the pre-trial process, Dr. Bayard de Volo produced for Swift an expert witness report which, among other things, outlined how Mueller fit the profile of men who commit acts of sexual assault against women. According to the report, Mueller had reason to perceive threats to his job status due to tension with his boss, his status as a radio personality due to lack of respect from Swift and her team, and his masculine status due to Swift being excited to meet his girlfriend but not him.
Dr. Bayard de Volo summarized that Mueller’s perceived threats to things he felt were important map onto the profile of sexual assault perpetrators, who sometimes commit violations in order to restore loss of status. Mueller’s defense team objected to the use of Dr. Bayard de Volo during trial, and last week the trial judge limited what Swift’s expert could testify about.
Taylor Swift’s Gender Studies Expert Limited during Trial
After reviewing the proposed expert testimony and Dr. Bayard de Volo’s qualifications, federal district court Judge William Martinez limited what could be said at trial. In his ruling, Judge Martinez focused on two primary issues when restricting what Bayard de Volo could speak about during trial. First, the judge pointed out that the proposed expert testimony would do very little to help the jurors determine which party is telling the truth. Dr. Bayard de Volo was not present at the time, has not spoken to Mueller, and could not offer a significant piece of evidence which would assist the jurors to resolve the dispute at hand.
Second, and more importantly, Judge Martinez found that any probative value of Bayard de Volo’s expert testimony would be substantially outweighed by its prejudicial impact on jurors. Judge Martinez wrote, “Dr. Bayard de Volo’s opinion — in effect that she believes Plaintiff felt threatened and that committing an act of assault because of that perception would be consistent with broader patterns of assault — creates a very substantial risk of prejudice against Plaintiff and of confusing the issues at trial.” Further, the judge stated that Bayard de Volo’s opinion on Mueller’s pattern of behavior would “lead the trial astray from its central purpose,” by exposing jurors to character issues which, while not necessarily helpful to the task of determining what happened, may lead some members of the jury to rule against Mueller simply because they think he is a bad guy.
Finding Dr. Bayard de Volo’s proposed expert testimony which matched Mueller to a profile of a sexual assault perpetrator to be inadmissible, Judge Martinez limited what the expert could say during trial. Bayard de Volo will be allowed to testify about how alleged victims of sexual assault delay reporting the incident, but she will not be able to talk about Mueller’s personal character or his perceived threats.
Ruling on Expert Speaks to Problems with Profile Evidence
Judge Martinez’s decision to limit Taylor Swifts’ proposed expert testimony reflects a broader reluctance to include any type of profile presented by an expert witness. The problem with profile evidence proffered by an expert witness is that it dilutes the factual issues which are supposed to determine the trial, and instead puts jurors into a position to make assumptions of guilt or innocence based on patterns of behavior. Further, these patterns of behavior are not themselves inherently criminal. For example, many men can experience threats to masculinity and job status, but most of them do not commit sexual assault.
When asking jurors to make decisions based on whether or not an accused party fits a profile, courts are exposing the trial process to conjecture and expert witness opinion – neither of which are the basis for juror evaluations. While some courts have allowed expert witnesses to testify that a particular defendant could engage in unlawful activity, the general rule is to limit or exclude profile evidence, even if it may have some relevance. Typically any relevant probative value of profile character evidence is substantially outweighed by its prejudicial impact on jurors.