Tag Archives: psychology expert witness

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Oklahoma Man Turns to Psychiatry Expert Witness for Insanity Defense

A psychiatry expert witness provided a report that an Oklahoma man charged with murdering his father is mentally unfit to stand trial, setting the stage for a critical ruling on mental competency from the presiding trial judge.  The case has gained attention in Oklahoma because the victim was a former state official, and the defendant has displayed signs of significant mental disorder.

Oklahoma Man Accused of Murdering his Father

Christian Costello, 27, is on trial for the fatal stabbing of his father, Mark, at a fast-food restaurant in August, 2015.  According to witnesses, Christian attacked his father with a knife while in the restaurant and then continued the fatal assault outside in the parking lot after Mark attempted to flee.  Mark Costello is the former labor commissioner of Oklahoma, and his death brought statewide attention on the question of whether or not Christian is mentally competent to stand trial.

Throughout the investigation into the crime, Christian Costello has been housed at a state run mental hospital where he has undergone a series of examinations in preparation for trial.  Costello’s attorneys have argued that their client is legally insane, and the defendant gave a convincing show of his deficient mental state during this week’s competency hearing by admitting to killing his father because he was a hit man who was ordered to commit the crime as part of a “military operation.”

Despite the defendant’s odd behavior, proof of legal insanity requires more substantial evidence, which attorneys for Costello attempted to provide by calling a psychiatrist expert witness to provide an expert report supporting the insanity defense.

Psychiatry Expert Witness Testifies to Legal Insanity

Dr. Jason Beaman, the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science at Oklahoma State University, was hired as a psychology expert witness by Costello’s defense team and asked to write a report on the defendant’s competency to stand trial.  Dr. Beamon returned a 39-page report which detailed Christian Costello’s long history of mental health issues including schizoaffective disorder, which is a mental illness causing hallucinations, delusions, depression, and mania.

In regards to the effect of Costello’s mental health issues on his competency to stand trial, Dr. Beaman wrote, “It is my opinion … that the defendant has the ability to appreciate the nature of the charges filed against him but he does not have the ability to consult with his attorney and rationally assist in the preparation of his defense.”  Dr. Beaman went on to write that Costello could meet the legal requirement of mental competency if he underwent psychiatric therapy or training to help him understand the legal processes.

Costello Faces Uphill Battle for Insanity Defense

Dr. Beaman’s psychiatry expert witness report is interesting because it may not provide a strong enough pillar for an insanity defense to stand on – particularly if the trial judge is willing to delay proceedings while Costello undergoes further evaluation or therapy.  Further, Costello’s attorney told reporters that he believes his client was legally insane at the time the attack occurred, telling the press, “I think that’s just the way he is, and I don’t think he knew what he was doing when he killed his father.”  Dr. Beaman’s report, however, did not say Costello didn’t understand the consequences of his actions, but instead focused on his ability to contribute to his own defense – a distinctly different proposition.

With a middling endorsement of the insanity defense from the defense expert witness which does not quite support Costello’s attorney’s position, the defense team may have a difficult time convincing the court to accept an insanity plea. The insanity defense remains a difficult prospect for any defendant as attorneys must use a psychiatry expert witness to not only show a mental defect, but also demonstrate that the defendant did not know their actions were wrong, could not understand the consequences of their behavior, and are unable to contribute to their own defense.

Depending on Oklahoma’s insanity plea laws, Costello’s proposed defense faces a stiff challenge.  The proceedings are on hold while the court awaits the results of an evaluation by a court appointed psychiatrist before moving forward.

Former Federal Judge Limited in Testimony as Expert Witness

False Confession Expert Testifies in Brooklyn Murder Trial

A New York man charged in the kidnapping and murder of a Brooklyn real estate magnate has called on a psychology expert witness to testify that he falsely confessed to the crime.  The high profile case provides another example of how behavioral science expert testimony is being worked into the legal system, and the outcome could influence the use of false confession research by courts in the future.

Brooklyn Murder Suspect Confesses to Role in Kidnapping

Brooklyn native Kendel Felix was arrested for his alleged involvement in the January 2nd, 2014 kidnapping and murder of real estate mogul Menachem Stark.  Stark was taken from the front of his office during a snowstorm, and his partially burned body was later recovered in a dumpster on Long Island.  Three months after the murder, police arrested Felix and three other co-defendants in connection with the crime, but only Kendel has been charged with murder.  Felix has been singled out in part because of a taped confession he provided to police officers in which he admitted to taking part in the crime by driving and helping to buy gasoline used to burn Stark’s body.

Felix claimed that he did not plan the crime, but his confession has nonetheless become the center piece of the trial against him.  If convicted, Kendel faces 50 years to life in prison, and his attorneys have attempted to attack the confession evidence with a pre-trial hearing featuring false confession expert testimony.  Attorneys for Felix reached out to a psychology expert witness with experience in false confession research to testify that the defendant was vulnerable to police persuasion which may elicit admission to a crime he did not commit.

False Confession Expert Testifies in New York Murder Trial

According to expert testimony from Dr. Marc Janoson during a pre-trial hearing in front of Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Neil Firetog, Kendel Felix may have falsely confessed to the kidnapping and murder.  Dr. Janoson has a PhD in psychology, and is an experienced false confession expert witness with years of research on the subject.  Dr. Janoson has been called to testify in several criminal trials, and told Judge Firetog that Felix has “vulnerabilities that the literature has associated with false confessions.”

Dr. Janoson conducted several one on one interviews with Felix after the defendant’s arrest, and testified that in his expert opinion Kendel suffered from a low IQ of 87 and memory loss which made him more likely to falsely confess.  Dr. Janoson also talked about the police investigation, during which officers told Felix that his parents could be deported if he didn’t confess and that he would never see his three children again.  The police also dissuaded the defendant from talking to a lawyer.  When talking about the methods the police used while questioning Felix, Dr. Janoson told the court “I would also add that if the reports he gave me on his interrogation were correct, there was a great deal of coercion.”

Dr. Janoson cited research on false confessions which demonstrates that low intellect individuals subject to heightened police pressure are at an increased risk to admit to a crime that they did not commit.  During his expert testimony, Janoson explained the existing research on false confessions and highlighted the attributes of Felix’s case which align with false confession literature.  Prosecutors responded by calling a counter-expert to dispute Janoson’s claims.

Prosecution Calls Psychology Expert Witness to Dispute False Confession Testimony

In response to Dr. Janoson’s false confession expert testimony, prosecutors called psychologist Kathy Yates to dispute the defense’s claim that Felix was vulnerable to police coercion.  According to Yates, the defendant had the intellectual capacity to understand his rights to speak with a lawyer, and faked his memory loss in an effort to avoid a long prison conviction.  During her testimony, Yates looked to Felix and directly contradicted Janoson’s testimony by saying, “I apologize for my colleague yesterday for saying you were brain damaged and below intellect.”

The success of Felix’s false confession expert witness remains to be determined, but the case represents an interesting use of experts in criminal trials.  False confession expert witnesses have grown in popularity as research into the phenomenon expands, but even renowned experts have experienced difficulty convincing judges and juries that a suspect can admit to a crime he did not commit.  Despite the uphill battle false confession experts face, psychologists in the field may be called upon by defense attorneys who seek to challenge evidence which is historically a strength for prosecutors.

False Confession Expert Testifies in New Mexico Murder Trial

A false confession expert witness has testified in the trial of a New Mexico man who stands accused of murdering his girlfriend in 2013.  The testimony represents the growing relationship between American courts and psychology experts used to explain human behavior during criminal trials, suggesting the once substantial gap between the two fields is shrinking with advances in behavioral science research.

Confession Expert Testifies in Murder Trial

New Mexico resident Cody Soto has been accused of murdering his 29-year-old ex-girlfriend Brandy Robinson in 2013 by stabbing her multiple times.  The first-degree murder charge against Soto has been aided largely by a confession he provided to detectives during the criminal investigation following Brandy’s death, and prosecutors rested their case against the man earlier this week.  Defense attorneys representing Soto have maintained the Not Guilty plea entered by their client, and attempted to downplay the weight of his confession by calling a psychology professor as an interrogation expert witness who will tell jurors why and how false confessions happen during police investigations.

Dr. Deborah Davis, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada in Reno who has become a confession and interrogation expert, took the stand as an expert witness for the defense in order to explain to jurors what circumstances create a false confession.  According to Dr. Davis a suspect may be pushed towards a false confession when they are overwhelmed by an interrogation and “will do anything to get out of there,” or they believe they are going to lose at trial anyway and a confession is their best chance at a favorable legal outcome.  In either case the suspect is distraught, confused, unsure of the legal system, and pressured to engaging in behavior that most jurors believe is impossible: confess to a crime he or she did not commit.

Dr. Davis pointed out to jurors that the Innocence Project, which is an organization committed to exonerating wrongfully convicted suspects by presenting DNA evidence, has calculated that one out of every four wrongfully convicted defendants has falsely confessed to a crime – many of them to serious crimes such as murder or rape.

Confession Expert Explains Police Interrogation Tactics

Police tactics are central to eliciting confessions, and Dr. Davis spent a significant portion of her testimony explaining to jurors how the popular Reid Technique used by most law enforcement detectives can result in a false confession.  When instituting the Reid Technique, police officers are trained to demonstrate unwavering confidence that they know the defendant is guilty and that they have enough other evidence for prosecutors to earn a conviction in court.  Detectives are allowed to mislead suspects about the strength of their other evidence, and frequently do so.

Dr. Davis when on to explain that detectives use confinement and isolation during interrogations to break down suspects, and will also frequently try to identify with them and express understanding about why the suspect committed the crime by downplaying the seriousness of their actions.  The goal of the Reid Technique is to gradually elicit small admissions before earning a full-blown confession over the course of time and constant pressure.  Dr. Davis pointed out that the Reid Technique is a highly effective tool, so much so that it can result in false confessions – particularly when defendants are mentally ill or intellectually deficient.

Dr. Davis concluded her testimony by identifying circumstances which can result in a false confession such as a longer-than-usual interrogation, a tired or hungry suspect, and the general discomfort of the session.  Dr. Davis was not permitted to talk about Soto’s interrogation specifically, but jurors watched the confession video and attorneys for the defense will likely point out false confession indicators during closing arguments.

False Confession Expert a Sign of Behavioral Science and Law

The use of false confession expert witnesses like Dr. Davis is a growing practice in the American legal system, but is not without controversy.  Attorneys and judges have voiced concerns over trials becoming “battles of experts” who can either confuse a jury with highly technical or scientific testimony, or improperly influence jurors by telling them how they should interpret the facts of a particular case.  The case of false confession expert witnesses further muddies the intersection of law and psychology because no one really knows how frequent or problematic false confessions are.  Even though 25{d61575bddc780c1d4ab39ab904bf25755f3b8d1434703a303cf443ba00f43fa4} of wrongfully convicted offenders who are later exonerated by DNA evidence falsely confessed to committing a crime, it is probably unreasonable to assume the percentage of confessions which are false is that high.

Despite the concerns over increased use of experts and uncertainty about the need for psychology expert witnesses, cases which feature experts like Dr. Davis are becoming more frequent.  As behavioral science slowly integrates its research and findings into American jurisprudence, jurors are more frequently exposed to psychology expert witnesses who testify about human judgment and decision-making in order to assist the men and women of the jury appropriately weigh and analyze the facts presented during trial.

Pennsylvania Law Allows Victim Psychology Expert Witnesses to Testify in Child Abuse Trials

A November court case in Pennsylvania has affirmed and set into effect a 2012 state law which will allow testimony from psychology expert witnesses who are able to explain why child victims of sexual assault delay reporting alleged crimes for months or even years after incident.  The law, which is a direct response to the Jerry Sandusky abuse case, will give jurors the opportunity to hear experts explain delays which are often key points of emphasis for defense attorneys in child abuse criminal cases.

Pennsylvania Law allows Child Psychology Experts to Testify

In the wake of the high profile child sexual assault trial of former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky – during which multiple expert witnesses about child sex abuse were denied the opportunity to testify during the prosecution – Pennsylvania legislators drafted and passed a law which specifically permitted experts in child sexual violence to testify during criminal trial.  The law was designed to educate jurors about victim psychology which may explain delays in crime reporting or inconsistent testimony that laypeople on a jury would be unlikely to understand.  Child psychology expert witnesses would not be allowed to tell jurors that victim behavior suggests guilt or innocence, but would serve to context in which to interpret the facts presented at trial.

Efforts to pass the law have been stymied by both the Pennsylvania legislature and the state court system which specifically rejected similar efforts to use psychology expert witnesses to explain victim behavior during previous trials.  With a handful of charges against Sandusky unable to proceed due to questions about victim credibility giving the law’s supporters a publically sympathetic argument the bill finally garnered enough support in 2012 to become law.  In 2014 the law was subject to a legal challenge by defense attorneys who claimed the legislature did not have the authority to impose evidentiary rules on the court system, particularly ones which directly countered previous state court rulings.

Child Psychology Expert Law Survives Pennsylvania Legal Challenge

During the 2013 trial of Jose Luis Olivo, on trial for sexually assaulting a young girl starting when she was 4 and continuing until she was 7, the prosecution attempted to present testimony from an expert in child victim psychology.  Defense attorneys for Olivo objected to the expert testimony arguing two points: first, the legislature did not have the constitutional authority to pass laws dictating rules of evidence, and second, prior Pennsylvania case law specifically precluded such a law by disallowing victim psychology expert testimony.  The trial court agreed with defense attorneys and disallowed the proposed expert witness testimony despite the new state law allowing it, setting up a series of appeals which eventually brought the case before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In November of last year, Pennsylvania’s highest court released an opinion which first validated the legislature’s authority to pass laws establishing judicial rules of evidence and second considered recent advancements in social science to conclude that the specific type of expert testimony proposed by the new law was admissible during trial providing the experts do not speak about the particulars of the case facts.  The majority opinion pointed out many evidentiary rules which have origins in statutory authority, suggesting that Pennsylvania lawmakers have demonstrated authority to impose evidentiary rules on the judiciary.  Further, the majority found prior case law which excluded psychology was distinguishable because it featured a different type of evidence and was analyzed with a different understanding of the nature and benefit of victim psychology expert testimony.

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Dissent Highlights Opposition to Psychology Expert Witnesses

A lone dissenting judge to the majority opinion argued Pennsylvania should continue to prevent victim psychology experts from testifying in child sexual abuse cases.  Citing fears that such testimony would turn trials in a battle of experts which would either serve to confuse jurors or alter the presumption of innocence and burden of proof by telling jurors how they should interpret facts, the dissenting opinion argued that jurors should be presented will all available evidence and decide witness or victim credibility.

While the dissent’s concerns are shared by many in the judiciary who have resisted expansion of behavioral science and psychology expert testimony, mounting evidence from psychological research which suggests juries are largely unable to make sophisticated assessments about behavior has begun to influence a slow shift towards permitting behavioral science testimony during criminal trials.  With the new law in Pennsylvania affirmed, prosecutors will start presenting victim psychology expert testimony during trial.

Mother Convicted for Leaving Infant in a Hot Car uses Psychology Expert Witness

An El Paso woman was recently convicted of criminally negligent homicide for the 2013 death of her infant daughter who was left in a hot car for 8 hours.  Jurors issued the guilty verdict despite hearing testimony from a psychiatrist expert witness who explained that the defendant suffered from “forgotten baby syndrome” which was presented as a condition that causes parents to leave their kids in cars unintentionally.

Texas Woman Charged with Death of Infant Left in Car

In May 2013 Wakesha Ives returned to her car after a long day teaching at an El Paso middle school to find that her 5-month-old daughter Janay Aliah Ives had spent the entire day locked inside the hot car.  Despite frantic efforts by school staff and paramedics to revive the baby at the scene, Janay was taken to a local medical center and pronounced dead with an internal temperature of 105 degrees.  Janay died of environmental heat exposure suffered due to being confined in her mother’s vehicle for an entire day, and Wakesha was subsequently arrested and charged with criminally negligent homicide for leaving her infant in her car while she was at work.

Throughout the investigation and trial Wakesha maintained that she mistakenly believed that she had dropped Janay off at day care prior to arriving at the school for work.  During her trial, a tearful Wakesha took the stand to tell jurors that she was devastated by her daughter’s death, and loved Janay as any mother would.  Wakesha explained that she was suffering from memory lapses due to her blood pressure medicine and on the day in question forgot that she had not dropped Janay off at day care like she typically did.

Wakesha’s attorneys told jurors that the defendant was experiencing significant levels of stress at her job and was suffering from chest pains, light-headedness, and memory loss because of high blood pressure medication that she was taking at the time.  In an effort to further demonstrate that Ives was not criminally culpable for her daughter’s death, the defense presented testimony from a psychology expert witness who explained that Wakesha showed signs of Forgotten Baby Syndrome which could have explained her inattentiveness to Janay.

Expert Witness Explains Forgotten Baby Syndrome

Attorneys for Wakesha Ives called to the stand Dr. David Diamond, an expert witness specializing in neuroscience and memory at the University of Florida, who discussed a condition he called Forgotten Baby Syndrome.  Dr. Diamond told jurors that, “Forgotten Baby Syndrome is when normal, attentive, loving parents forget their kids in the car,” and can be distinguished from cases of neglect or abuse when parents are known to be slow, sluggish, or suffering from memory loss in the time prior to the incident.

Dr. Diamond’s expert testimony explained that because our memories are frail and prone to easy lapses, simple factors like a break in normal routine or a series of unusual events could lead a parent to overlook the fact that their child was left behind in a hot car.  According to Ives’s husband, she had not slept well the night before, and that he had placed the baby bag in back seat that morning rather than its usual spot in the front of the car.  Dr. Diamond explained that this seemingly innocent break in routine could trigger Forgotten Baby Syndrome, suggesting that Ives forgot about her daughter and was not acting negligently or maliciously by leaving Janay in the car.

Jury Convicts Texas Mother for Death of Infant Daughter Left in Hot Car

Despite emotional testimony from Wakesha Ives and analytical expert witness testimony about Forgotten Baby Syndrome by Dr. Diamond, the jury of 10 women and 4 men found the defendant guilty of criminally negligent homicide for Janay’s death.  The jury acquitted Ives of the more serious charge recklessness causing serious bodily harm due to omission – which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years – suggesting that jurors put some degree of stock into the defendant’s case and her expert witness’s contributions.

Ives will return to court in early October for a sentencing hearing, and faces up to two years in jail for her conviction.  Dr. Diamond’s expert witness testimony on Forgotten Baby Syndrome may not have been fully successful, but it seems that jurors incorporated his position into their decision by selecting the lesser available charge.  Forgotten Baby Syndrome is relatively unheralded in the legal community, but with the attention it has received in the Ives case more defendants may look for experts like Dr. Diamond who provide explanation why parents would leave infants unattended in hot cars.

Psychology Expert Witnesses Testify in Colorado Murder Sentencing Trial

A Colorado man convicted of murdering five people outside of a bar avoided the death penalty when jurors found sufficient mitigating factors to believe he deserved jail time instead of execution.  In part, the jury was influenced by psychology expert witnesses presented by the defense during the sentencing phase who testified that the defendant’s history of childhood abuse warped his worldview and decision-making.

Colorado Man Convicted of Murder for Stabbing Death of Five People

In mid-August a Colorado jury found Dexter Lewis guilty for murdering 5 people outside of a Denver bar in 2012.  Lewis was convicted of stabbing his victims multiple times during what prosecutors called an act of rage and savagery.  Lewis allegedly went to the bar with intent to rob it, but instead acted violently against the bar’s owner and four patrons before lighting the building on fire with their bodies inside.    Throughout the trial, prosecutors showed grisly pictures of the scene to paint Lewis as a vicious and remorseless killer which convinced jurors that he was guilty of the crimes committed.

After the verdict was announced, jurors prepared to pass judgment in the second phase of the trial which would determine an appropriate sentence.  In an effort to reinforce the extreme nature of the crime, prosecutors again highlighted the visual evidence taken from the scene as they argued Lewis deserved to be put to death.  Defense attorneys for Lewis countered by telling jurors about the defendant’s history of suffering abuse at the hands of his mother and step-father in the gang influenced environment where he grew up.  Lewis’s attorneys called two psychology expert witnesses to use his challenged background as a mitigating factor that would help him avoid execution.

Psychology Expert Witness Testifies about Effect of Childhood Abuse

During the sentencing phase for the Dexter Lewis murder trial, prosecutors attempted to convince jurors that the brutality of the defendant’s actions was severe enough to warrant the death penalty.  Defense attorneys for Lewis countered that the abuse the defendant suffered during his childhood effected his brain development and altered the way he perceived the nature of his actions.  Prosecutors objected to the use of psychology expert witnesses by arguing it was up to the jury to identify mitigating factors, but both of Lewis’s experts took the stand during his sentencing phase.

First to testify for Lewis was Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist who is an expert on the effects of childhood trauma on development.  During his testimony, Dr. Perry spoke about how abuse, particularly abuse by a parent, alters the way children develop and can explain why they would grow into violent adults.  Perry, who founded the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, told jurors that abuse during the period when children form relationships that help dictate how they view the world leaves executive function of the brain impaired.  Dr. Perry concluded his expert testimony by telling jurors that impaired development can cause children to grow up without impulse control or the ability to regulate emotions in stressful situations.

Although Dr. Perry did not work with Lewis personally, his testimony showed jurors that people who suffer the abuse and neglect that Lewis suffered could become violent due to lack of brain development.  To directly connect Lewis’s condition with Perry’s testimony, defense attorneys wrapped up their case by calling a clinical psychologist who analyzed the defendant’s mental state.

Clinical Psychologist Expert Witness Takes Stand for Dexter Lewis

Mark Cunningham, a clinical psychology expert witness, took the stand last as defense attorneys for Dexter Lewis argued the defendant did not deserve the death penalty.  Cunningham echoed the expert testimony from Dr. Perry by pointing to the long term effects that regular abuse has on children, and showed jurors that the sustained and severe abuse that Lewis suffered throughout his childhood impaired his ability to make reasonable decisions and control violent impulses.  Although Cunningham was not permitted to testify about the content of his interviews with the defendant, he told jurors that Lewis’s history of physical and emotional abuse would have a severe impact on the developmental process.

Ultimately the jury agreed that Dexter Lewis deserved leniency to avoid the death penalty, assuring that the defendant will instead spend the rest of his life in prison.  Use of psychology expert witnesses during a capital murder sentencing phase has become more commonplace, and attorneys for Dexter Lewis demonstrated that helping jurors understand the negative effects of childhood trauma can convince a jury to opt for life in prison instead of execution.

Psychology Expert Witness Testifies in Alabama Child Sex Abuse Case

Defense attorneys for an Alabama man convicted of sexually abusing a child younger than 6 have presented a psychology expert witness during the sentencing hearing in an effort to avoid a conviction for life without parole.  With hopes of persuading the judge to place the convicted defendant to a program for sex offenders rather than prison, the expert argued the man’s personal history and mental state warranted a more lenient sentence.

Alabama Man Convicted of Child Sex Abuse

Emanuel Yarbrough, 34, was convicted in August for first-degree sodomy and first-degree sexual abuse for sex acts he perpetrated on a 5-year-old-girl.  A former missionary, Yarbrough argued throughout his defense that he did not clearly remember the act or recognize that he was having sex with a child.  Yarbrough argued that he did not engage in the sexual activity in the Alabama County where he was ultimately convicted, and told jurors that he couldn’t differentiate between the young girl and his wife. Yarbrough went on to state that the girl did not tempt him, and was confused during the times that he allegedly committed the acts.

Prosecutor Jayme Amberson wasted no time in pointing out inconsistencies in Yarbrough’s account, and reiterating to the jury that several witnesses – including the victim – testified that the sex acts happened frequently and in the county where Yarbrough stood trial.  Jurors needed just 25 minutes to return with a guilty verdict, setting up a sentencing hearing where Yarbrough’s attorneys turned to a psychology expert witness in an attempt at earning their client leniency.  Alabama law requires any defendant convicted of sexual abuse with a child under 6 to be sentenced to life without parole, but Yarbrough’s defense team is hoping that an expert analysis of his psychological state of mind will convince the judge that a sex offender program is the more appropriate punishment.

Convicted Sex Offender Turns to Psychology Expert Witness

During the sentencing hearing for Emanuel Yarbrough, his attorneys called forensic psychologist Frankie Preston to testify on the findings of a psychological survey he conducted on the defendant while he was in jail.  According to Preston, the tests he administered Yarbrough are designed to determine his degree of mental stability at the time of his crime.  During his expert testimony, Preston told the court, “Mr. Yarbrough endorsed experiencing symptoms that were indicative of five of those psychiatrically coined diagnoses — major depressive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and somatization disorder.”

Preston went on to testify that the mental disorders Yarbrough suffered had their origins from his family history of abuse which featured similar crimes committed by his father and brother.  Further, in Preston’s expert opinion, Yarbrough likely exhibited the symptoms prior to his incarceration during the time when he committed his sexual crimes.  Tests also showed that Yarbrough was sexually attracted to adult females and older teenage girls, which is not considered abnormal according to Preston.

During cross examination, Preston suggested that Yarbrough may be eligible to complete a program that he runs for sex offenders which provides treatment before releasing them back into society.

Judge to Mull Prison or Sex Offender Treatment in Alabama Child Sex Abuse Case

Although the mandatory penalty for committing  sex offense against a child younger than 6 in Alabama is life in prison without possibility of parole, Emanuel Yarbrough’s attorneys have argued that the punishment is unconstitutionally harsh, and that their client is better suited for a treatment program operated by their forensic psychology expert witness.  During questioning about the programing, the expert Frankie Preston admitted that some offenders have re-offended afterwards, but that he and his staff engage in regular follow-ups to minimize post-treatment sex crimes.

The judge will weigh the nature of Yarbrough’s crimes against the psychological factors discussed by the defense expert witness to make a final sentencing decision in the coming days.

Psychiatry Expert Witness Testifies in Murder Trial

Last week a jury in Tioga County, New York convicted 63-year-old Douglas Every of manslaughter for the stabbing death of his 39-year-old roommate, Milton Jump.  Mr. Every did not deny his role in the incident, but attempted to bolster his self-defense argument by calling a psychiatric expert witness to testify that his mental state caused him to reasonably fear the victim would harm him.

New York Man Convicted of Manslaughter for Stabbing Roommate

Douglas Every and Milton Jump lived together in a home owned by the 63-year-old Every until the two got into a verbal altercation on October 23, 2013.  After the men had been drinking, they began an argument that ended with Every stabbing Jump in the heart.  Prosecutors charged Every with 2nd-degree murder, but the Defendant argued that he had acted in self-defense due to feeling intimidated by the younger Jump’s behavior during the argument.

After a two-week trial, jurors were unwilling to find Every guilty of the murder charge, forcing the prosecution to settle for the lessor option of manslaughter.   Although the jury ended up convicting Early for the stabbing death of his roommate, the decision to find him guilty on the lessor manslaughter charge suggests that the defense strategy to justify the assault had some impact on the outcome.  Critical to the defense was the testimony of a psychiatry expert witness who informed jurors that the Defendant suffered from heightened states of agitation that contributed to his violent and fatal reaction to the argument.

Psychiatry Expert Witness Testifies for Defense

Defense attorneys for Douglas Every called Dr. Thomas Lazzaro, a forensic psychologist with more than 30 years of experience, to testify that the Defendant experienced high anxiety and the early stages of dementia that contributed to his overreaction to verbal confrontation.  Dr. Lazzaro performed a psychiatric evaluation on the Defendant after his arrest, and testified to jurors that the accused experienced anxiety as a result of his dementia.  Lazzaro, who both sides agreed is an expert in psychology and human behavior, explained to the court that his evaluation with Every and his investigation of the incident led him to concluded that the Defendant could not control his perception of the escalating argument with Milton Jump.

Defense attorneys used Dr. Lazzaro’s expert testimony to argue that Every acted out of fear of a physical threat, even if an objective observer to the situation would determine that the threat did not warrant a violent response.  Self-defense justifies violent action if a defendant reasonably perceives a threat of imminent harm, and when a disrupted mental state alters how the defendant perceives confrontation jurors can take the altered perception into account.  If Douglas Every’s mental condition and high anxiety created in his mind a reasonable fear that his verbal altercation with Milton Jump would turn violent, then he may qualify for a self-defense justification to the crime.

Prosecutors responded to the effort by questioning Dr. Lazzaro’s motivation to testify (he received $3,000), and pointing out that despite the psychiatric evaluation, it was Every who escalated the argument to violence.

Jurors Don’t Grant Self-Defense Acquittal

Dr. Lazzaro’s evaluation of Douglas Every led to compelling testimony that the defendant was unable to process the threat of a verbal altercation with his roommate in a normal way, however, jurors were unwilling to grant full acquittal.  The 1st-degree manslaughter conviction is a step down from 2nd-degree murder, suggesting Dr. Lazzaro’s testimony had some effect, but jurors clearly felt that Every was accountable for his violent behavior and did not deserve to go unpunished.  Mr. Every has been remanded to the Tioga County jail for a January sentencing hearing that will likely reopen the issue Dr. Lazzaro testified to during the trial.  Every faces a maximum of 25-years for the 1st-degree manslaughter conviction.

Experts Clash over Suspect Confession in Murder Trial

Two expert witnesses clashed over the validity of a suspect’s confession during a murder trial in New Jersey.  Prosecutors and defense attorneys presented psychology expert witnesses to debate whether or not police coerced a false confession out of suspect David Granskie Jr. during the investigation into the death of his father’s girlfriend, Carolyn Stone.

Defense Calls False Confession Expert Witness

On May 24th, 2009, Carolyn Stone was murdered during a Memorial Day event at the home of her boyfriend, David Granskie Sr.  Although suspect Gary Wilson immediately confessed to murdering Stone using a cinder block without assistance or involvement of accomplices, Granskie Jr. was investigated for participating rape and suggesting that the victim be murdered in order to cover up the crime. While being detained by police Granskie was videotaped admitting that he was part of the sexual assault and present for Stone’s murder, and with his confession as a centerpiece, prosecutors developed and pursued a murder case against Granskie that finally came to court last September.

Defense attorneys for Granskie targeted the validity of the confession by calling Dr. Clarence Watson, a psychologist expert witness who specializes in identifying false confessions coerced during aggressive police interrogation.  Dr. Watson testified that Granskie’s admission was not legitimate due to the defendant’s battle with heroin withdrawal.  Saying that Granskie’s struggle with addiction created significant anxiety and stress, Watson claimed that the defendant simply wanted to accommodate police officers by telling them what they wanted to hear.

Calling the information in the confession “contaminated” by the police’s use of pressure and leading questions that directed Granskie to the answers that would implicate him in Stone’s death, Dr. Watson expressed doubt that the admission of guilt was genuine.  During his expert testimony, Watson pointed out several examples of pressure tactics, including:

  • When Granskie said he didn’t know how many times Stone was hit with the cinder block, police forced him to provide a number.  When Granskie responded incorrectly with “10”, police accused him of lying.
  • In several situations where Granskie responded with “I think,” or “I don’t know,” or another vague answer, police would not relent and continue to pressure him until he provided a definitive answer that fit their theory of the crime.
  • When Granskie claimed he did not rape Stone, police told him that he did, and, after several suggestions that he engaged in sexual intercourse with Stone and then moved her body to the site of the murder, Granskie relented and agreed.

Dr. Watson reinforced his theory that Granksie’s confession was coerced by pointing to signs of heroin withdrawal throughout the interrogation.  Granskie was fidgety and showed signs of bulging veins that Watson argued should have tipped police off to a vulnerable condition.  Dr. Watson’s expert testimony concluded by telling jurors that in his opinion Granskie was pressured into a false confession, striking a blow to the prosecution’s key evidence in the case.

Prosecutors Call False Confession Rebuttal Expert Witness

To rebut the testimony of Dr. Watson, prosecutors called a false confession expert witness of their own: Dr. Louis Schlesinger.  Contrary to Watson’s claim that Granskie’s admission was the result of police pressure, Dr. Schlesinger argued that there was no evidence that suggested the police took improper action or that Granskie’s confession was invalid.  Schlesinger attacked Watson’s expert testimony on four key points:

  • Granskie Jr. was not suffering from symptoms of heroin withdrawal: During his testimony, Dr. Watson pointed to physical symptoms of heroin withdrawal that Granskie appeared to be suffering, but Dr. Schlesinger countered that none of those symptoms reached the level of “clinically significant distress.”  While Granskie displayed some minor discomfort, Schlesinger attributed his demeanor and mannerisms to the stress anyone accused of murder would display.
  • Granskie did not use heroin two days before the murder: key to Watson’s claim that Granskie’s heroin withdrawal influenced his confession is the time of the defendant’s last use of the drug.  According to Schlesinger, Granskie did not use heroin immediately before the murder or the subsequent investigation.
  • Granskie did not ask to be released after the interrogation was over: When the confession ended, Granskie simply asked for a cigarette rather than request his release.  According to Schlesinger’s expert testimony, this behavior indicates the defendant was not simply appeasing police in hopes of being allowed to go home.
  • False confessions are usually only made for people who fall into three categories:  Dr. Schlesinger pointed to research that suggests only mentally retarded, juvenile, and mentally ill defendants are prone to making false confessions during police interrogation, and argued that since Granskie didn’t fall into any of those, it is unlikely he was pressured into a lie.

Defense attorneys objected to Schlesinger’s testimony because he was improperly primed about the content of Dr. Watson’s argument prior to taking the stand, but the trial judge allowed the prosecution to proceed providing that jurors would be informed of the tampering.  Granskie’s trial is expected to wrap up within the next week, and with the confession central to the evidence, significant importance will be placed on the dueling testimony of the psychology expert witnesses who debated its validity.

Expert Witness Critiques Police Questioning of Child Accuser

A psychology expert witness specializing in questioning child victims of sexual assault testified on behalf of a California defendant, offering a critical analysis of police investigation and interrogation techniques when interacting with young sex abuse accusers.  The testimony represents a growing trend of use of expert witnesses to present psychological concepts designed to assist jurors make legal decisions.

Psychologist Called as Expert Witness in Child Sexual Abuse Trial

Dr. Bradley McAuliff, a professor of psychology at CSU Northridge, was called by defendant Clinton Dean Grosse to cast doubt on the sexual abuse allegations against him.  Grosse is on trial in Butte County, California for allegedly committing felony continuous sexual child abuse, a charge that requires prosecutors demonstrate the defendant committed three or more sexual acts against a child under the age of 14 over a period of at least three months.

Grosse’s accuser, now in her teens, testified earlier in the trial that he forced her to engage in oral sex and masturbation, and rubbed his genitals on her clothing.  The alleged victim was in high school when she reported the incident, which she claimed happened while she was in middle school.  Grosse allegedly performed these acts at his residence, forcing the victim to engage in several sexual acts in violation of the law.  When she was in high school, the girl wrote down her accusations in a letter to her mother before reporting the incident to police.

Dr. McAuliff was tasked with analyzing the process employed by police to question the young accuser, and help suggest reasonable doubt by pointing out aspects of the investigation that gave opportunity for the alleged victim to misremember the facts.

Psychology Expert Analyzes Police Interview Techniques of Child Accuser

In his testimony, Dr. McAuliff established that, although he did not interview the child accuser directly, he reviewed the police reports and detailed transcripts of the interviews in order to get a clear understanding of what transpired during the Grosse investigation.  In response to questioning from the defense attorney, McAuliff testified that his research indicates direct or leading questions from a police interviewer can lead a child to simply agree with whatever they are asked, and struggle to deny false or inaccurate statements.

Relevant to the Grosse case, Dr. McAuliff pointed out that police investigators asked direct questions from the girl’s letter to her mother, including potentially false facts it contained.  With each interviewer using the letter, the story the police wanted to tell could have been easily developed through direct and suggestive questioning.  According to McAuliff, the proper way for police to interview a child accuser is to act as if the officers do not know the story, and rely on the child’s open ended narrative to build the case.  During the investigation into Grosse’s alleged sexual crimes, police often asked direct questions that the girl agreed to, which could have resulted in exaggerated or false statements.

Dr. McAuliff acknowledged that the police did take positive action by encouraging the alleged victim to correct them should statements be false, but overall he was critical of the approach police questioners took throughout the investigation.  McAuliff was also sure to point out that just because an interviewer improperly questions a child, it does not mean the child gave a false answer.  The faulty police techniques simply made the possibility of false information more likely, which Grosse’s defense team hopes will create sufficient reasonable doubt to acquit.