The Arizona Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling last week, changing the way criminal trials in the state can make use of expert witness testimony. Rejecting an appeal of a lengthy prison sentence, the Court admitted testimony of a “cold” expert witness – meaning an expert who has not interacted with the victims.
Arizona Admits Cold Expert Witness Testimony
Martin Salazar-Mercado appealed his conviction of multiple counts of child abuse to the Arizona Supreme Court due to the prosecution’s use of an expert witness who knew nothing about the particular victims involved in the case. At trial, the state presented testimony of a forensic interviewer who discussed a condition known as Child Sexual Abuse Accommodation Syndrome in order to explain the behavior of Salazar-Mercado’s victims. Many of the child victims delayed reporting the abuse, had trouble recalling the timing of events, and even changed stories during the course of investigation – symptoms common among young victims of sexual abuse. Salazar-Mercado’s attorney objected to use of the expert witness because she had not interviewed any of the children or connected personally with the case.
In a unanimous decision, the Court rejected Salazar-Mercado’s appeal and set a lasting standard for the use of experts in Arizona criminal trials. Holding that the state’s forensic interviewer expert testimony was admissible, the Court found that, “Expert testimony about general behavior patterns of child sexual abuse victims may help the jury understand the evidence.” In this case, the state’s expert helped the jury understand reasons for the delayed and inconsistent reporting. In its conclusion, the court was careful to limit cold expert witness testimony to “general principles of social or behavioral science,” and reminded judges that cold testimony must still satisfy legal standards for admissibility.
Understanding Cold Expert Witness Testimony
Expert witness testimony is often used to analyze facts of the case and explain how professional or scientific knowledge applies directly to the particular issues jurors must decide. Experts are called upon to conduct investigations, write reports, and offer pointed testimony that help judges or jurors answer questions about the facts of the case. Traditionally, experts who have not interacted with the particulars of the case have not been used to speak to victim behavior, however the continued advances in social and behavioral science have made the use of cold expert witnesses possible.
A cold expert witness is so termed because she has not connected personally to the facts of the case, but instead is called upon to offer testimony on general principals – often relating to behavior. Courts make use of cold experts in order to understand why the parties involved behaved in a particular manner, but their testimony is limited in scope. In the Salazar-Mercado appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court properly restricted cold expert testimony by forbidding one to testify about “the accuracy, reliability or credibility of a particular witness,” because an expert who has not personally investigated the facts cannot comment on specific issues. As with any expert, a cold expert witness speaking to social or behavioral science must be able to show her testimony is supported by reliable and scientific knowledge before being admitted at trial.