A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in a case where a district court had used the wrong standard in barring expert testimony. However, in a concurring opinion, the judges noted that while precedent requires a new trial, that result didn’t make sense in this case.
The District Court Case
Patrick Bacon and Daniel Ray were convicted of assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do bodily harm and assault causing serious bodily injury as the result of a metal shank stabbing of another prisoner at federal prison in Victorville.
At trial, Bacon pleaded insanity. Bacon’s defense attorneys retained forensic clinical psychologist Dr. Nadim Karim to testify on Bacon’s behalf. Dr. Karim was prepared to testify that Bacon’s mental health disorders would have caused him to have trouble understanding the consequences of his actions at the time of the stabbing.
District Court Judge Percy Anderson of the Central District of California excluded Dr. Karim’s testimony. Judge Anderson reasoned that “Dr. Karim’s opinion that an individual who was suffering from a myriad of severe mental health disorders that Mr. Bacon was facing would have had difficulty understanding the nature and quality of his action at the time of the offense conduct is equivocal and will not help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine the issue of sanity.”
Bacon was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Ray was sentenced for eight years and four months for his role in the crime.
The Ninth Circuit
Brown appealed the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. His case was heard before a three-judge panel consisting of Circuit Judges Paul J. Watford and Mark J. Bennett, joined by District Court Judge Jed S. Rakoff of the Southern District of New York, sitting by designation.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit ruled that Judge Anderson had applied the incorrect legal standard. Instead, Judge Anderson should have made his decision based on whether Dr. Karim’s testimony would assist the jurors in drawing their own conclusions regarding “Dr. Karim’s opinion that an individual who was suffering from a myriad of severe mental health disorders that Mr. Bacon was facing would have had difficulty understanding the nature and quality of his action at the time of the offense conduct is equivocal and will not help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine the issue of sanity.”
The court clarified that it was not ruling that the district court must admit Dr. Karim’s testimony on remand — it was only holding “that the district court abused its discretion in finding the testimony was not relevant to Bacon’s insanity defense.” Under Ninth Circuit precedent, this abuse of discretion required a retrial.
However, Judge Watford wrote a concurring opinion joined by Judges Bennett and Rakoff. He wrote that he agreed with the panel’s ruling, but that he wrote “separately to highlight how wasteful of judicial resources that remedy potentially is.”
He gave the example, “What if, on remand, the district court decides that Dr. Karim’s testimony is insufficiently reliable, and thus must be excluded once again? If that occurs, why in the world should the court hold a new trial at which a second jury will hear the same evidence heard by the jury at the first trial?”
Judge Watford suggested that a better procedure would be to “conditionally vacate the judgment and remand to the district court with instructions to determine whether the disputed expert testimony was admissible” under the relevant court rule and case law. This course of action was previously suggested by Ninth Circuit Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen’s concurring and dissenting opinion in the 2014 case of Estate of Barabin v. AstenJohnson, Inc.