Elizabeth Smart, an ABC News contributor who describes herself as an activist for victims of predatory crimes, will not be allowed to testify as an expert witness in a California kidnapping case. Smart gained national attention when she was abducted from her home in Salt Lake City at the age of 14. She was rescued nine months later.
The Orange County district attorney wanted Smart to explain why the alleged victim in the kidnapping case did not escape when she had the chance. Although Smart testified outside the presence of the jury that she experienced a similar ordeal, the judge ruled that Smart’s anecdotal experience did not qualify her to testify as an expert.
Orange County Kidnapping Trial
Isidro Garcia is accused of kidnapping the 15-year-old daughter of his former girlfriend in 2004. The alleged victim, who is now 26, testified that Garcia began to touch her inappropriately at the age of 14 and threated to call immigration authorities if she told her mother about his conduct. She also testified that Garcia forced her to leave her home, held her captive for 10 years, and made her marry him and bear his child.
Prosecutors contend that Garcia changed identities and moved his wife and child frequently in order to conceal his crime. Garcia’s wife said she was rescued after contacting her sister on Facebook in 2014.
The defense contends that the alleged victim left her home willingly because she was quarrelling with her mother. According to the defense, the alleged victim lived with and married Garcia voluntarily, and was happy with their relationship until shortly before she contacted her sister. Garcia’s defense attorney attributes the accusation to the fact that Garcia’s wife wanted out of a relationship that had become troubled.
Neighbors have reported to the press that Garcia and his wife seemed to be a happy couple. They threw parties and danced together. Neighbors saw no evidence that Garcia’s wife, who had her own car and job, was being abused or confined.
Elizabeth Smart’s Proposed Expert Testimony
The strongest argument in support of the defense is that the alleged victim had ample opportunity to flee over the course of ten years but chose to stay. That evidence suggests that she was not kidnapped and held captive, as the prosecution claims.
Prosecutors contend that the alleged victim may not have been physically restrained by Garcia, but was “mentally his captive.” The alleged victim testified “that for a decade she felt an underlying fear that Garcia would beat her, separate her from her child and arrange for her deportation.”
Prosecutors wanted to call Elizabeth Smart to testify about the reasons the alleged victim might have stayed with Garcia. During a hearing held outside the jury’s presence, Smart noted parallels between her own experience and the testimony given by Garcia’s wife. A key difference in the cases, however, is that Smart was rescued after nine months while Garcia’s wife stayed with him for ten years.
Smart told the court: “Those threats to me, they were very real to me. That’s why I didn’t run, and I can only say that that’s the same reason that this victim didn’t run either.” Unfortunately for the prosecution, Smart’s proposed testimony amounted to little more than speculation that the alleged victim’s reason for staying with Garcia must have been the same as her own reason for staying with her kidnapper.
The judge ruled that Smart’s proposed testimony lacked foundation. In other words, she had no basis for testifying that Garcia’s wife stayed with Garcia for the same reason that Smart stayed with her kidnapper. Smart was not qualified to testify as an expert because she did not base her opinion on studies, psychological profiles, or other evidence (beyond her own anecdotal experience) that would have supported her opinion. Smart’s testimony would have amounted to “she says she was afraid and I believe her because I was afraid too,” but deciding whether a witness is telling the truth is the function of the jury, not of other witnesses.
Stockholm Syndrome and Expert Testimony
It may have been possible for prosecutors to support their case with expert testimony. Victims in the position of Garcia’s wife are sometimes said to have suffered from Stockholm syndrome. Also known as capture-bonding, Stockholm syndrome occurs when hostages learn to identify with and become dependent upon their captors.
Expert witnesses have testified about Stockholm syndrome in a number of cases, including the defense of Patty Hearst. Widespread (although less than universal) acceptance of the syndrome opens the door for expert testimony to explain why a kidnapping victim might not take advantage of escape opportunities.
Had the prosecution offered to present the testimony of a psychologist who had studied Stockholm syndrome and who could apply the diagnostic criteria for that condition to the alleged kidnapping victim in the Garcia trial, the court might well have agreed to allow the expert to testify. Since Elizabeth Smart could not provide that kind of testimony, the prosecution lost its bid to educate the jury with expert evidence.
Photo Credit: “Elizabeth Smart Speaks About Overcoming Trauma” is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.