Tag Archives: Legal Expert Witness

Expert Witness Testifies During Post-Conviction Hearing of Serial’s Adnan Syed

The post-conviction hearing for Adnan Syed, whose case was made famous by the 2014 legal podcast Serial, featured intense testimony from an expert witness who argued the murder conviction should be invalidated due to insufficient defense counsel.  The hearing, which is expected to conclude later this week, will determine the fate of Syed who is currently serving a life sentence.

Serial Podcast Leads to Post-Conviction Hearing

In 2000 Adnan Syed was convicted for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee, his ex-girlfriend and high school classmate.  From the moment of his arrest Syed has maintained his innocence, and has spent the time since his conviction seeking a new trial by claiming his defense attorney provided constitutionally inadequate representation.  Syed has been in prison for more than 16 years, but finally earned a post-conviction hearing to review his case in part due to the overwhelming popularity of a NPR podcast which reviewed the facts of the case and Adnan’s prosecution.

In 2014 journalist Sarah Koenig produced and hosted a podcast on NPR called Serial which discussed the investigation into Lee’s murder and Adnan’s involvement.  Throughout the course of Serial’s first season Koenig pointed to a number of procedural question marks in Adnan’s prosecution and defense, the most glaring of which was his attorney’s failure to properly question a number of potential alibi witnesses who placed Adnan in a different location from Lee at the time of her murder.

Three weeks after the conclusion of Serial’s expose on Adnan’s murder trial, the Maryland Court of Special Appeals allowed him to appeal his conviction on the grounds his attorney, Christina Gutierrez, who died in 2004, was ineffective in her efforts to defend him.

Adnan Syed Defense Team Calls Legal Expert Witness

A criminal defense expert witness called by Adnan’s attorneys took the stand to tell the court that Gutierrez’s failure to pursue alibi witnesses was a crucial mistake which satisfies the legal standard for constitutionally insufficient counsel.  According to David Irwin, an attorney who consults as an expert witness for criminal defense, Gutierrez was made aware of potential alibi witnesses by Adnan shortly after his arrest, but she didn’t seriously inquire about their alibi testimony or call any to the stand during Syed’s criminal trial.

Irwin called Gutierrez’s failure a “game changer” which “made an incredible difference in the outcome of the case” and told the Court of Special Appeals that Adnan’s insufficient counsel satisfied the Strickland Test, named after the Supreme Court case Strickland v Washington.  The Strickland Test, which is used to determine whether defense counsel was constitutionally deficient, requires a defendant to first show his counsel fell below an objective standard of reasonable quality and second that had the defense attorney performed adequately the outcome of the trial would have been different.

During his expert testimony Irwin said that Gutierrez’s counsel fell below the standard for care expected of defense attorneys and the result of Adnan’s trial would likely have been different because alibi witnesses are, according to Irwin, the second-best evidence a defendant can present at trial.  Irwin concluded that there were no tactical reasons for Gutierrez to not call alibi witnesses, which suggests her decision to not follow up on those witnesses constituted a failure.

Alibi Witness Testifies at Adnan’s Appeals Trial

To bolster testimony by its expert witness, Adnan Syed’s defense team called a key alibi witness to the stand during his post-conviction hearing.  Asia McClain, a classmate of Adnan’s, testified during the hearing that she remembered seeing the defendant at the library at the time he was allegedly killing Lee in a Best Buy parking lot.  McClain also told the court that Gutierrez knew about her statement but did not call her to the stand, lending credibility to Irwin’s claim that Adnan was not adequately represented during his initial trial.

Adnan’s post-conviction hearing, which also featured expert testimony from prosecutors which argued cell phone information linking Adnan to the murder scene was valid, is expected to wrap up this week after several days of dramatic testimony.


Federal Court Dismisses Expert Witness for Providing Legal Testimony

Earlier this month, a federal court in Texas dismissed proposed insurance expert witness testimony for focusing too strongly on legal issues rather than factual disputes.  During a claim dispute, the insurer submitted an attorney familiar with insurance issues as an expert witness to explain the process of reviewing claims and interpreting policy documents, however the judge refused the expert because he was acting as an advocate rather than a source of knowledge.

Insurance Company Offers Attorney as Expert Witness

The dispute arose in 2012 when Atrium Medical Center was sued by a former patient claiming that he now faces a terminal illness because his primary physician allowed his condition to worsen by failing to advise him of the results of a CT scan performed in the hospital.  After being served with the lawsuit, Atrium notified its insurer Homeland Insurance Company (HIC) and filed a claim to have the insurance company provide a defense pursuant to Atrium’s policy.  Upon reviewing the claim, HIC denied coverage because the claim was not made against Atrium during the HIC policy period and was excluded by the Policy’ prior knowledge provision against claims that the insured knew about before the policy was in effect.

In response, Atrium filed a lawsuit against HIC alleging the insurer violated its duty of good faith and fair dealing by rejecting the hospital’s claim.  According to Atrium, HIC rejected the claim in bad faith by not conducting a reasonable review of the situation before issuing a denial of coverage.  HIC responded that it conducted and adequate and reasonable analysis of the claim as to meet industry standards of coverage on claims requesting legal defense.  In an effort to support its position, HIC called an attorney as an insurance coverage expert witness to tell the court that the insurer met its duty of good faith and fair dealing by conducting a sufficient investigation into Atrium’s claim.

Report from Insurance Attorney Expert Witness Contested

HIC submitted Michael Huddleston, an attorney with more than 30 years experience in insurance law, as an expert witness.  According to Huddleston’s report, HIC had a reasonable explanation for denying coverage under the “controlling legal concepts applicable under Texas law.”  Huddleston supported this claim by reviewing the relevant legal standard of bad faith claim denial under Texas law, and explaining that HIC did not take any steps that are outside of accepted common practice among insurance carriers which deny coverage based on the prior knowledge exception.  Huddleston’s expert witness report was written to help jurors understand the standard of “reasonableness” under Texas insurance law, and support the defendant’s position that it did not act in bad faith when denying Atrium’s claim.

Atrium argued that Huddleston’s expert report violated the Federal Rules of Evidence because it offered impermissible conclusions of law.  Under evidentiary law, an expert witness is not permitted to usurp the responsibility of judges by explaining the relevant law to jurors. These rules are in place to avoid situations where jurors rely on the conclusions of a legal expert rather than properly analyze all the facts and come to their own conclusions.  Arguing that Huddleston’s expert witness report violated the Federal Rules by giving jurors legal conclusions, Atrium requested the court prevent him from taking the stand during trial.

Federal Court Rejects Expert Witness on Legal Interpretation

Although the court acknowledged that attorneys are not barred from acting as expert witnesses, and may, in fact, testify to some matters that blend issues of fact and law, the judge found that HIC’s expert went too far in his analysis of the legal issues key to the case.  The court pointed out that Huddleston frequently cited legal cases throughout his report, and approached the issue from a purely legal background and way of thinking.  Huddleston, who has no experience working in the insurance industry, wrote the report from the perspective of an attorney and, naturally, his expert opinion focused on how Texas law applies to the dispute.  When Huddleston mentioned the factual issues, he did so only to frame them in light of the legal standard establishing when it is reasonable to reject an insurance claim.

Finding that his expert witness report read more like a legal brief than an analysis of the facts, the federal court in Texas dismissed Huddleston as an expert witness in the case because he improperly offered legal conclusions.  The case reminds attorneys that expert witnesses are not permitted to provide legal conclusions during their testimony, and provides an example of when legal conclusions by an expert go beyond what is permissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence.