The Colorado Supreme Court has decided to hear a case to determine whether to permit expert witness testimony in domestic violence trials by experts who are not familiar with the details of the case.
The Domestic Dispute
In the summer of 2013, Kerry Lee Cooper and his partner, L.K., got into an argument over where to place an electric fan. L.K. testified that Cooper shoved her face into the fan’s blades, cutting her, and she retaliated by hitting him. L.K. claims that Cooper then punched her, grabbed her by the jaw, and beat her with a tire iron.
Cooper claimed that L.K. had been the aggressor. According to Cooper, L.K. asked him to reposition the fan. When she was unhappy with the way he had placed it, he threw the fan on the end of the bed. He claims that L.K. hit him with the flashlight and bit his hand when he tried to take the flashlight away from her. Cooper only admitted to pushing L.K. in the forehead.
Cooper’s daughter, who lived nearby, heard screaming and called the police.
The Domestic Violence Expert
At Cooper’s trial, the prosecutors brought in an expert witness to testify about the “characteristics of domestic violence relationships” and the “power and control wheel,” a tool that was developed with the intent to “explain the ways that an abusive partner can use power and control to manipulate a relationship.”
Cooper’s attorneys objected to the testimony, but the court allowed its admission. A jury convicted Cooper of third degree assault and harassment, but acquitted Cooper of related menacing and cruelty to animal charges — Cooper’s dog had entered the room during the incident.
Colorado Court of Appeals
Cooper appealed his conviction. On appeal, the Colorado Court of Appeals considered whether the district court erred by admitting a subject matter expert witness who had no familiarity with the facts of the case.
The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled that the trial court had erred by admitting the expert witness. Writing for the court, Judge Michael H. Berger stated that “No evidence presented to the jury proved or even suggested that prior to the charged incident Cooper had assaulted, or physically or nonphysically abused, L.K.” Berger also noted that there was no indication of a cycle of violence or control over L.K.; however, “the expert was permitted to give extensive testimony about how domestic abusers exercise such control”.
In essence, the expert testimony had no factual foundation that made it relevant to the case. Berger wrote that the expert’s testimony “may well have caused the jury to infer that there was a prior history of domestic violence.” The court reversed Cooper’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
Colorado Supreme Court
The prosecution petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court for a Writ of Certiorari.
The Colorado Supreme Court granted the petition, agreeing only to determine the issues of (1) Whether the court of appeals erred in concluding that blind expert testimony on domestic violence was inadmissible because the charged act was the first act of domestic violence in the relationship; (2) Whether the court of appeals erred in concluding that blind expert testimony on domestic violence must be limited to those facets of a subject that are specifically tied to the particular facts of the case; and (3) Whether the court of appeals erred in finding that the admission of the expert testimony was not harmless.