A defendant who alleges that he committed a violent act in self-defense must usually establish a reasonable basis for believing that his safety was threatened. Courts have recognized that evidence of drug use may be relevant when the defendant was attacked by a drug user whose violent conduct can be explained by the ingestion of drugs. An expert witness can help a jury understand why the use of a particular drug may have caused the attacker’s aggressive behavior, thus posing a threat to the defendant.
The defendant in a recent North Carolina case argued that he should have been allowed to use an expert witness to bolster his theory that he acted in self-defense after being attacked by a methamphetamine user. In an opinion that fails to recognize the important role that expert witnesses play in helping juries understand evidence of drug intoxication, an appellate court affirmed the decision to disallow the expert testimony.
Facts of the Case
Shirley Hollifield left her home at midnight to put gas in her car. A man confronted her. The man was later identified as Chris English. Hollifield texted Jerry Echols, the boyfriend with whom she lived, to tell him about the confrontation. She was sobbing when she returned home twenty minutes later.
Echols wanted to know why English had approached Hollifield late at night. Echols and Hollifield drove to a neighborhood where they spotted English. They testified that English was babbling before he got down on all fours and started growling at them. English then charged at Echols and Hollifield.
English fought with Echols, who got on top of him. After Echols let English go, English again got on all fours, started growling, and rushed toward Echols. Echols pulled a handgun from his pants and shot English. Echols testified that he believed English was armed. Echols and Hollifield then drove away.
English had been a regular user of methamphetamine since his release from prison about a year earlier. English suffered from paranoia and hallucinations. On the night of the shooting, English was “talking crazy” and “not making any sense” before he was seen to use drugs. He then began smoking methamphetamine with other users. One of those users testified that English was growling like a dog when she last saw him.
The police discovered English’s body at 1:00 a.m. A couple of days later, Echols fled from a police officer who tried to pull him over for running a red light. The officer arrested Echols and, during a search of his car, found the handgun he used to shoot English.
Echols was charged with murder. At his trial, an expert witness testified that she matched Echols’ handgun to the shell casings found at the scene of the shooting.
Echols wanted to introduce the expert testimony of Wilkie A. Wilson, a neuropharmacologist. Wilson would have testified that English’s aggressive and bizarre behavior was consistent with methamphetamine intoxication. Echols contended that Wilson’s testimony would have bolstered his contention that he was acting in self-defense after being attacked by a person who was seemingly deranged.
The trial judge ruled that Wilson’s proposed testimony was based on speculation rather than a reliable application of scientific principles and methods to the facts of the case. The defense countered that the evidence established English’s use of methamphetamine and that Wilson’s specialized knowledge of the behavioral effects of methamphetamine ingestion supplied a reliable basis for his expert opinion.
The trial judge also ruled that the relevance of Wilson’s testimony was outweighed by its prejudicial nature because English was behaving strangely before he ingested methamphetamine. Yet there was no evidence that English was behaving aggressively, much less getting on his hands and knees and growling like a dog, until he used the drug.
In a decision that strikes a blow to the ability of defendants to use expert witnesses to educate juries, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled that Wilson’s testimony was inadmissible. According to the court, Wilson’s testimony was not supported by sufficient facts and was therefore speculative. The court noted that Wilson did not examine English, but failed to explain why an examination was necessary to opine about the pharmacological effects of methamphetamine ingestion.
Wilson based his opinion about English’s drug use on the testimony of other witnesses, as experts are entitled to do. Those witnesses saw English smoking methamphetamine. Wilson explained that abundant studies prove that methamphetamine ingestion causes the kind of behaviors that English exhibited. That evidence supplied a factual basis for Wilson’s conclusion that English was suffering from methamphetamine intoxication when he attacked Echols.
The trial court ruled that there was “a real problem” concerning whether the facts upon which Wilson relied were correct. But deciding whether facts are correct is the jury’s duty. Courts improperly deny parties the benefit of a jury determination when they take it upon themselves to decide disputed facts. Since the evidence would have permitted the jury to rely upon the facts that informed Wilson’s opinion, the opinion should not have been rejected simply because the court had a “real problem” with those facts.
The trial court drew a distinction between testimony that methamphetamine makes people behave in the way that English behaved — a conclusion that, as the court conceded, is well established by science — and testimony that English was violent because he used methamphetamine. That distinction is illusory. Would a court say that an expert can testify that alcohol impairs driving but disallow testimony that the driving ability of a driver who drank a bottle of bourbon was impaired by alcohol consumption?
Courts routinely allow experts to draw conclusions about human behavior, at least when the experts testify for the prosecution. Disallowing Echols the opportunity to use an expert in his defense was plainly unwarranted.