Massachusetts Law

No Error in Massachusetts Court’s Expert Witness Rulings Regarding Insanity Defense

Written on Tuesday, March 27th, 2018 by T.C. Kelly
Filed under: General

Christopher Piantedosi was found guilty of first degree murder after stabbing his girlfriend to death. Piantedosi admitted killing the victim. He rested his defense on the contention that antidepressants caused involuntary intoxication that negated criminal responsibility for the crime.

Piantedosi challenged his conviction on appeal, arguing that the trial court erred by excluding the testimony of his expert witness while admitting the testimony of the state’s expert. The Massachusetts Supreme Court affirmed the conviction.

The Murder

Piantedosi argued with his girlfriend. His daughter was a witness to the argument. At one point, Piantedosi brandished a small knife that he pulled from his pants pocket. His girlfriend told him to leave. Piantedosi began to talk to himself, telling himself to calm down.

Piantedosi then grabbed a butcher knife and chased his girlfriend into his daughter’s bedroom. His daughter had been video chatting with a friend who was still connected to the daughter’s tablet. Through the video connection, the friend witnessed Piantedosi stabbing the victim multiple times. Piantedosi repeated the words “You got to die” during the stabbing.

Piantedosi’s Mental Health History

The murder occurred on May 3, 2012. In late April 2012, Piantedosi was admitted to a hospital for self-inflicted injuries to his arms. He was diagnosed with depression and was given prescriptions for Trazodone and Prozac.

Piantedosi was discharged on May 2. Several people who saw him at a class on the evening of his discharge noted that he seemed tired and unwell. On May 3, he appeared to be pale and dehydrated.

Dr. Wade Meyers, a forensic psychiatrist, evaluated Piantedosi after he was arrested. Dr. Meyers concluded that Piantedosi suffered from involuntary intoxication caused by taking a combination of Trazodone and Prozac. He also concluded that Piantedosi was unable to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct or to control his behavior.

Dr. Meyers explained that rage reactions, hostility, and a disinhibition of behavior are possible side effects of both medications. He concluded that Piantedosi suffered from bipolar disorder and was therefore more vulnerable to those side effects. Both Trazodone and Prozac contain warnings that the drugs can induce violent mood swings in people who suffer from bipolar disorder.

In rebuttal, the prosecution called Dr. Alison Fife, a forensic psychiatrist. She did not agree that Piantedosi suffered from bipolar disorder. She also disagreed that Piantedosi was involuntarily intoxicated. She testified that Piantedosi’s behavior was not driven by a mental illness, but by feelings of anger, sadness, and rage.

Limitations on Dr. Meyers’ Testimony

Dr. Meyers interviewed Piantedosi before he formed any opinions. The defense asked Dr. Meyers whether he learned anything from Piantedosi concerning his mental health history that was significant to his opinion. The prosecutor objected that the question called for hearsay since Piantedosi had not testified. The court excluded proffered testimony that Piantedosi had discussed his experience of manic-like symptoms, hyperactivity, moodiness, extended periods of sleep, and significant stressors in his life.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court recently abandoned the traditional rule that an expert’s opinion must be based on personal knowledge or on facts that have been admitted into evidence. Most courts have rejected a strict application of the traditional rule because it impairs the ability of experts to express honest and helpful opinions. The Massachusetts court adopted the majority rule that experts can base opinions on evidence that has not been admitted if the evidence is the type of information that experts would routinely rely upon.

Whether experts can testify about hearsay statements upon which they rely in forming an opinion is a different question. The answer varies from state to state. The court concluded that in Massachusetts, an expert testifying on direct examination may not articulate any underlying facts that support the expert’s opinion if those facts are not independently admissible.

The court observed that its rule departs from the federal rule, which generally allows experts to disclose inadmissible facts if they would help the jury understand the expert’s opinion and are more helpful than prejudicial. The court declined to adopt the federal rule because, in the court’s view, it allows parties to use experts as a backdoor means of presenting inadmissible evidence to the jury.

The court noted that Dr. Meyers was allowed to testify that Piantedosi suffered from a bipolar disorder and that his diagnosis was based, in part, on the history he took from Piantedosi. Explaining that history, however, would require repeating Piantedosi’s out-of-court statements. The rule against hearsay prevented Dr. Meyers from referring to those statements.

Prosecution’s Expert Testimony Regarding Motivation

Dr. Fife, the prosecution’s expert, testified that mental illness “did not drive” Piantedosi to kill the victim and that he was driven to kill her by feelings of depression, as well as sadness mixed with anger and rage. On appeal, Piantedosi argued that the testimony was improper because an insanity defense in Massachusetts does not depend on proof that a mental illness drove the defendant to commit a crime. Instead, the question is whether a mental illness deprived the defendant of the ability to appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct, or made the defendant substantially less capable of conforming his conduct to the requirements of the law.

The Massachusetts Supreme Court did not view the testimony about what “drove” the defendant as problematic. While the testimony was not couched in terms of the legal standard, it was another way of expressing whether Piantedosi was capable of conforming his behavior to the requirements of the law.

Dr. Fife also strayed from the legal standard by testifying that she likes to think of the legal standard as asking whether the crime would have occurred even in the absence of a mental illness. That isn’t the test for insanity in Massachusetts and an expert’s incorrect understanding of the law has significant potential to prejudice the jury.

The trial judge stepped in promptly, however, and instructed the jury that the court would define the applicable law at the end of the trial. The state supreme court did not regard the expert’s confusing misstatement of the law as prejudicial, given the trial court’s correct statement of the law during jury instructions.

Finally, the defense objected that the expert’s opinion invaded the jury’s province as the ultimate fact-finder by essentially expressing an opinion that the defendant was guilty. Courts are not always consistent in the latitude they give to experts, but the Massachusetts Supreme Court followed the general and somewhat contradictory rule that, while an expert witness may not express an opinion about a defendant’s guilt or innocence, an expert may give an opinion that “reaches or approaches the ultimate issue in a case.” However fuzzy the line between those two rules might be, the court ruled that Dr. Fife did not cross it.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.

About T.C. Kelly

Prior to his retirement, T.C. Kelly handled litigation and appeals in state and federal courts across the Midwest. He focused his practice on criminal defense, personal injury, and employment law. He now writes about legal issues for a variety of publications.