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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Law & Order Criminal Intent: Texas Court Of Appeals Affirms Trial Court's Decision To Let Expert Testify On Defendant's Murderous Intent

In Martin v. State, 2007 WL 4335473 (Tex.App.-Houston 2007), the Court of Appeals of Texas affirmed Tameka Nicole Martin's conviction for the capital murder of D.D., her ten month old baby girl.  Martin was charged when D.D. died of craniocerebral trauma four days after she was admitted to the Texas Children's Hospital.  One of the doctors who examined D.D. at the hospital was Dr. Allen, who testified that the child had suffered from trauma to her brain, trauma to her body, malnutrition, and multiple broken bones.  When asked for his opinion at trial, Dr. Allen testified that D.D. "was a severely beaten child that died."  He further testified that D.D.'s injuries were "all high speed, high velocity injuries, which were directly intended to hurt [the] child."  Dr. Allen's testimony and other evidence led to Martin's conviction, and she appealed, claiming, inter alia, that Dr. Allen was not allowed to provide testimony about whether D.D.'s injuries were intentionally inflicted.

Like Federal Rule of Evidence 704(a), Texas Rule of Evidence 704 states that "[t]estimony in the form of an opinion or inference otherwise admissible is not objectionable because it embraces an ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact.  Thus, for instance, in Pittsburgh Corning Corp. v. Walters, 1 S.W.3d 759, 777 (Tex.App.-Corpus Christi 1999), the Court of Appeals of Texas found that an expert witness could give his opinion as to whether a party was negligent.

On the other hand, under Federal Rule of Evidence 704(b), "[n]o expert witness testifying with respect to the mental state or condition of a defendant in a criminal case may state an opinion or inference as to whether the defendant did or did not have the mental state or condition constituting an element of the crime charged or of a defense thereto. Such ultimate issues are matters for the trier of fact alone."  Thus, a doctor would not be able to testify that his opinion was that the defendant intentionally killed the victim. See, e.g., United States v. Wood, 207 F.3d 1222, 1235-36 (10th Cir. 2000).  Thus, were Martin's case being heard in federal court under the Federal Rules of Evidence, Dr. Allen's opinion that D.D.'s injuries were based upon acts intended to hurt the child would have been inadmissible.

However, while some states, like Utah, have added state counterparts to Rule 704(b) or incorporated its language into their case law, other states, such as Texas, have not made the change.  Thus, the Court of Appeals in Martin found that Dr. Allen's testimony on intent was admissible because Dr. Allen examined the injuries sustained by D.D. and testified based upon medical expertise and knowledge that he thought they were the result of acts intended to hurt her.

Federal courts have noted that the reason for Federal Rule of Evidence 704(b) is that, if believed by the jury, expert testimony on the mental state of the defendant necessarily dictates the jury's final conclusion and improperly invades the province of the jury. See Wood, 207 F.2d at 1236.  On the other hand, states failing to adopt the federal rule in some form contend that such expert testimony is relevant and that jurors can still reject this testimony and come to their own conclusions.  In the end, then, the issue comes down to how much faith jurors put into expert testimony about the alleged mental state of criminal defendants.  I thus feel unequipped to answer the question of which courts are correct without having read any empirical studies on the issue, if such studies exist.  If such studies do not exist, I would love to somebody tackle the issue.

-CM

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