Cathy Truitt filed seven tax returns in 2009, each claiming her entitlement to a $300,000 refund. The IRS recognized that six of returns were fraudulent, but inexplicably issued the refund demanded by the seventh return.
Within a week, the IRS recognized its error and demanded that Truitt return the money. By that time, Truitt had gone on a shopping spree and had no money to return. The government therefore prosecuted her for making false claims against the government and for theft of government funds.
A jury found Truitt guilty. The question on appeal was whether the trial court wrongly excluded an expert witness who would have testified that Truitt was susceptible to brainwashing by a charismatic group. The Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the conviction.
Truitt’s Tax Returns
Truitt joined the Moorish Science Temple of America in 2009. The Moorish Temple claims that it is a sovereign “ecclesiastical government.” It tells its members that neither the federal nor any state government has jurisdiction over its members, who hold a status similar to diplomatic immunity.
Moorish Temple members sign documents that purport to notify the government of their new Moorish nationality. Members also receive identity cards, license plates, and other documents that purport to establish their change of nationality. Since the Moorish Temple has no legal status as a nation, however, the documents have no legal effect.
Truitt’s problem arose not because she filed falsified income tax returns, but because she filed returns that relate to trusts and estates. Moorish Temple leaders instructed her to file the returns using numbers that purported to have religious or symbolic significance. She was also told to tithe 25% of any refund she received to the Moorish Temple.
Truitt was advised that filing the returns would allow her to collect funds from a trust that had been established by the Moorish Temple’s founding prophet. She was told that she was entitled to the funds regardless of any “pushback” she received from the government.
Truitt filed the tax returns as instructed. She requested a refund of taxes that had been withheld from trust income in her name. In reality, there was no trust and thus no taxes had been withheld.
Truitt spent or gave away the refund after learning that the IRS wanted it back. Because Truitt stopped attending the Moorish Temple, she was excommunicated and never tithed the share that the Moorish Temple had requested.
Truitt’s defense was that she truly believed that money belonging to her resided in a trust. She contended that she had no intent to make false claims because she genuinely believed her claim was supported by the facts that she received from Moorish Temple.
In support of that defense, Truitt wanted to call Dr. Michael Fogel as an expert witness. Dr. Fogel is a forensic psychologist. Although he primarily testifies about a defendant’s mental competence, propensity for violence, or mental disorder, he is also an expert in “charismatic groups.”
Dr. Fogel defined a charismatic group as one whose members share a belief system, have a high level of social cohesiveness, are strongly influenced to comply with behavioral norms, and assign charismatic and/or divine power to the group or its leadership. He characterized charismatic groups as a “type of cultic group” and distinguished them from cults that rely on physical coercion.
Trial Court Ruling
Rule 704(b) of the Federal Rules of Evidence prohibits an expert from stating an opinion “about whether or not a defendant did or did not have a mental state or condition that constitutes an element of the crime charged or of a defense.” That rule was adopted in response to public outrage that John Hinkley — a man was clearly mentally ill — was acquitted of trying to assassinate President Reagan.
The rule has been justly criticized, not only because it placed public sentiment about a specific trial outcome ahead of a defendant’s right to a fair trial, but because it prevents juries from hearing expert testimony that is directly relevant to innocence. The rule puts a thumb on the scale in the government’s favor in criminal prosecutions by pretending that experts in mental health have nothing relevant to say about a defendant’s mental state or condition.
Nevertheless, the rule is the rule. The trial judge therefore agreed with the government that Dr. Fogel could not testify that Truitt believed the forms she was filing were legitimate.
The court then considered whether Dr. Fogel could testify that Truitt was susceptible to indoctrination by Moorish Temple. It concluded that Rule 702 and the Daubert decision precluded that testimony. Truitt challenged that ruling on an appeal of her conviction.
Appellate Court’s Analysis
Applying Rule 702, the court asked whether Dr. Fogel was qualified to render an opinion, whether his methodology was reasonable, and whether his testimony would have assisted the jury. The appellate court concluded that, notwithstanding his expertise in group dynamics, Dr. Fogel was unqualified to render an opinion because he had no relevant experience with charismatic groups.
The court acknowledged that generalists may have adequate knowledge and training to render specialized opinions. The court nevertheless concluded that Dr. Fogel’s experience with other kinds of group dynamics did not qualify him to “answer specific questions about the religious themes at play in this case.” The court did not explain why “religious themes” are so different from “other kinds of group dynamics” that Dr. Fogel’s general experience would not allow him to render an opinion about the influence that a group like Moorish Temple might have had on a person like Truitt.
A more formidable obstacle to Dr. Fogel’s testimony concerned his methodology. After the court rejected Dr. Fogel’s testimony as to Truitt’s belief in the legitimacy of her request for a refund, Dr. Fogel reformulated his opinions. He proposed to testify that (1) the Moorish Temple is a charismatic group, and (2) charismatic groups can cause people to lose their moral compass and to do things they otherwise would not do.
The appellate court concluded that Dr. Fogel failed to rely on an adequate methodology to determine whether Moorish Temple was a charismatic group. Dr. Fogel based his opinion that Moorish Temple is a charismatic group on the information he received from Truitt, who had a vested interest in convincing Dr. Fogel that she had been brainwashed. Whether the information that Truitt supplied was truthful, however, was a question for the jury to answer, as questions of witness credibility are exclusively within the jury’s domain.
The court nevertheless concluded that an opinion based on whether a group had a shared belief system required more data than the opinion of a single group member. Dr. Fogel attempted to talk to two other group members who apparently rebuffed his requests, but stopped his data-gathering effort at that point.
Dr. Fogel relied on the work of Dr. Marc Galanter to inform his understanding of charismatic groups. But Dr. Galanter circulates written surveys and conducts interviews with a large number of group members before he identifies a group as charismatic. The court characterized Dr. Fogel’s methodology as a “watered down” version of Dr. Galanter’s methodology.
The deficiencies in Dr. Fogel’s qualifications and methodology might have been overcome with a different expert. While the court’s conclusion that Dr. Fogel was unqualified to testify about charismatic groups was suspect, given that he had the requisite professional background to learn about and understand relevant research into cults, the question of qualifications could have been avoided by engaging an expert who had significant experience with charismatic groups.
More importantly, when an expert relies on another expert’s methodology, it is important for that methodology to be followed with care. It may have been difficult for Dr. Fogel to conduct a survey and extensive interviews given the time pressures that are inherent in criminal cases, but the risk of “watering down” a methodology is that a judge will regard the expert’s data as insufficient to support the expert’s opinions.
Finally, if the trial court concluded that Rule 704(b) permitted an expert to testify that Truitt was susceptible to influence by a religious cult, perhaps the defense should have confined Dr. Fogel’s proposed testimony to that simple issue. Truitt was certainly entitled to testify that she was influenced by the leaders of Moorish Temple. Dr. Fogel only needed to interview (and perhaps administer tests to) Truitt in order to decide that she was susceptible to influence by people she respected as religious leaders. Had Dr. Fogel’s proposed testimony been tailored more narrowly, perhaps it would have been admissible.