As the rape trial of two former Vanderbilt University football players will begin in a Tennessee courtroom next week, the fate of testimony from two psychology expert witnesses on behalf of the defendants has yet to be decided by the presiding judge. Judge Monte Watkins has agreed to hear the defense expert testimony away from the jury, and will rule on how much of it, if any, the experts are allowed to say in open court.
Vanderbilt Ex-Football Players Accused of Rape
Former Vanderbilt football players Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey are facing charges for the rape of Vandenburg’s unconscious 21-year-old girlfriend in June of 2013. Vandenburg, Batey, and two other former members of the team who have yet to go to trial are accused of dragging the young woman to a dorm room inside Vanderbilt’s Gillette Hall and raping her while she was drunk and unresponsive. All four athletes were kicked off the football team when the allegations became public, and they face significant jail time on five counts of aggravated rape and two counts of aggravated sexual battery.
Vanderbilt Rape Defendants Petition for Expert Witness Testimony
During the pre-trial process, defense attorneys for Brandon Vandenburg submitted for approval planned testimony by a psychology expert witness who argued the young man was intoxicated and did not have control over his behavior. Dr. Stefanie Stolinsky, a forensic psychologist, produced an expert witness report that argued Vandenburg was too drunk to know what was happening on the night his girlfriend was raped, and therefore could not form the necessary intent to commit the crime.
Although no blood alcohol test was performed to verify the Defendant’s level of intoxication, Dr. Stolinsky pointed to other evidence that suggested Vandenburg could not control his actions, including: witness statements corroborating his account that he was severely intoxicated, video evidence that showed he needed help getting his girlfriend out of his car and into the dorm room, images of him stumbling and swaying as he walked, and evidence that he vomited in the bathroom due to the alcohol he consumed. If successful, Dr. Stolinsky’s testimony would serve as a partial defense to the charges Vandenburg faces.
Defense attorneys for Cory Batey also requested the court allow a psychology expert witness who will speak to the young man’s state of mind at the time of the alleged sexual assault. Dr. James Walker, a neuropsychologist who works for Vanderbilt, has been retained by Batey to determine whether or not the Defendant was mentally incapacitated at the time of the incident, and to further testify about his ability to understand the trial process at all. As the details of Dr. Walker’s testimony are not known, prosecutors would likely ask for a delay in the trial to prepare a counter-expert if Judge Watkins allows Walker to take the stand.
Vanderbilt Defense Expert Witnesses Target Intent to Commit Rape
Both expert witnesses will argue that the two defendants lacked the requisite intent to commit aggravated rape or aggravated sexual assault. In Vandenburg’s case, it is important to note that intoxication, particularly voluntary intoxication, is not a perfect defense because even if jurors agree with Dr. Stolinsky’s expert analysis, Brandon could still be found guilty of rape. The defense is primarily designed to lessen the severity of the charges against him, which in turn would lessen his punishment. In Mr. Batey’s case, if Dr. Walker determines that he was incapable of processing his actions on the night of the alleged rape or that he is unfit to stand trial, prosecutors would need to call a psychology expert witness to provide a counter-analysis that demonstrates the contrary or be forced to reevaluate the charges against him.
Prosecutors Move to Suppress Psychology Expert Witness
Prosecutors made a pre-trial motion to disallow the testimony of Dr. Stolinsky submitted by Vandenburg’s defense team, saying that the psychologist did not conduct a proper analysis to reach the conclusion that the Defendant was too intoxicated to control himself. Without a breath test, or some other scientific measure of blood alcohol content, prosecutors argued that Stolinsky’s expert witness does not have the necessary foundation in science or reliable methodology to speak to Vandenburg’s level of intoxication and, as such, should not be allowed on the stand.
Judge Monte Watkins declined to suppress the expert witness testimony of either psychologist, but did not extend the invitation for them to speak to jurors during trial. Instead, the Judge will hear testimony from each expert in a private session with only the parties present, and determine if either has met the criteria required for reliable and relevant expert testimony. Expert witness testimony must be supported by scientific research and methodology, and must apply to the issues central to the case before jurors can use it to make a guilt determination. Judge Watkins will hear the proposed testimony from each defendant’s expert witness next week before he makes a final decision about whether or not either will be able to take the stand during the high profile rape trial.