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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Beyond Therapy: Cesar Rodriguez's Lawyers Rest Case After Court Rejects Psychiatrist's Testimony

Attorneys for Cesar Rodriguez abruptly rested their case after a jailhouse witness provided surprising testimony against their client and the judge hearing his case struck down their attempts to introduce testimony by a psychiatrist.  Rodriguez is on trial in Brooklyn, facing charges of second degree murder for the alleged beating death of his 7 year-old stepdaughter, Nixzmary Brown.  The defense theory of the case is that Nixzmary's mother, Nixzaliz Santiago, committed the murder, and defense counsel sought to prove this theory by calling a jailhouse acquaintance of Brown to testify that Santiago confessed to the murder (Santiago is currently incarcerated, with his own trial for the murder upcoming).  However, this jailhouse witness surprised defense counsel by testifying that Santiago confessed to her that both Rodriguez and she murdered the girl and that Rodriguez had sexually abused Brown.

Defense counsel attempted to counter this allegation by calling a psychiatrist (some sources refer to the proposed witness as a psychologist) who examined Santiago.  The judge, however, ruled that this psychiatrist could only offer hearsay evidence and thus could not testify, leading to Rodriguez's attorneys resting their case.

Depending on the facts of the case, this could have been a proper or an improper decision.  Undoubtedly, if Santiago made statements to the psychiatrist, and defense counsel wanted the psychiatrist to testify about those statements, the testimony would have been hearsay because defense counsel would have been seeking to prove the truth of the matter asserted in Santiago's statements.  Under Federal Rule of Evidence 803(4), however, there is an exception to the rule against hearsay for "[s]tatements made for purposes of medical diagnosis or treatment and describing medical history, or past or present symptoms, pain, or sensations, or the inception or general character of the cause or external source thereof insofar as reasonably pertinent to diagnosis or treatment."  And while New York doesn't have a statutory counterpart to this federal rule, it has adopted a similar exception in its case law.  See, e.g., People v. Denne, 291 A.D.2d 888, 889 (N.Y.A.D. 4 Dept. 2002).

Furthermore, while I was not able to find any New York cases on point, most courts have recognized that statements to psychiatrists and psychologists can qualify under this hearsay exception. See, e.g., Morgan v. Foretich, 846 F.2d 941, 949 n.17 ("Statements to psychiatrists or psychologists are admissible under 803(4) the same extent as statements to physicians.").    Of course, the question which I can't answer from the articles is whether Santiago's statements which defense counsel sought to admit through the psychiatrist's testimony were made for the purposes of medical treatment or diagnosis, which is why I can't say whether the judge acted correctly or incorrectly.

Of course, it should be noted that even if Santiago's statements were admissible under this exception, they still could have been deemed inadmissible under other laws/rules, such as through Santiago's assertion of the psychotherapist/patient privilege. See Velez v. Daar, 41 A.D.3d 164, 165 (N.Y.A.D. 1 Dept. 2007). 

-CM

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