Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Christopher Pratt has been charged with doemstic violence, felonious assault, destroying a telephone and unlawaful imprisonment in connection with acts he allegedly committed against his live-in girlfriend, Norreen Parker. During the prosecution's case last week, Parker testified that during the altercation at issue, Pratt threw two chairs at her, smashed the phone when she tried to call 911, and briefly held her inside their house.
Based upon a seemingly bizarre ruling by the Michigan court hearing the case, however, jurors were not able to hear the proffered testimony of Maureen McNamara, a social worker and therapist with Sexual Assault Services, who was set to provide expert testimony about domsetic violence. Despite the fact that McNamara has two master's degrees and years of experience helping victims of domestic violence, the judge refused to qualify her as an expert witness based upon the fact that she had not conducted scientific research or undergone peer review of her work.
Assuming that the article reporting Pratt's case is accurate, this decision makes no sense to me. Michigan Rule of Evidence 702 states in relevant part that "[i]f the court determines that scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise...."
Like other courts, Michigan courts have been liberal in finding witnesses to be qualified as experts. Indeed, witnesses can be qualified as experts even if they lack any type of formal training or experience or if they are no a licensed professional in the relevant field. See, e.g., Mulholland v. DEC Intern. Corp., 443 N.W.2d 340 (Mich. 1989) (qualifying a witness as an expert witness despite the fact that he was not a licensed veterinarian and lacked formal training). In accordance with this liberal position, Michigan courts have frequently found that social workers with relevant experience counseling victims of sexual violence are qualified as expert witnesses on issues related to sexual and domestic violence without any requirement of peer review/publication. See, e.g., People v. Beckley, 456 N.W.2d 391 (Mich. 1990). Perhaps the article got the details of the Pratt case wrong, or perhaps there were issues at play of which I am unaware, but it certainly seems to me that the Michigan court's decision was clearly erroneous.