Sunday, March 25, 2012
Keeping The Faith: 4th Circuit Finds Questions About Buddhist Meditation Ritual Didn't Violate Rule 610
Federal Rule of Evidence 610 provides that
Evidence of a witness’s religious beliefs or opinions is not admissible to attack or support the witness’s credibility.
So let's say that the prosecution seeks to cross-examine a defense expert witness by, inter alia, asking him about his participation in a "dark retreat," a Buddhist meditation ritual. Would such questioning run afoul of Rule 610? According to the recent opinion of the Fourth Circuit in United States v. Argueta, 2012 WL 941533 (4th Cir. 2012), the answer is "no."
In Argueta, a jury convicted appellant Roberto Antonio Argueta on eight counts of criminal conduct related to his affiliation with the gang La Mara Salvatrucha (also known as "MS-13"), including numerous counts for conspiracy, racketeering, and murder. According to the prosecution, Argueta order other gang members from LPS, a clique of the MS-13 gang, to murder Nancy Diaz.
the government presented expert witness testimony from Mr. Diaz [an El Salvadorian police officer] regarding the operations of the MS–13 gang. He testified about the general structure of the gang membership including the hierarchy of senior leadership within each clique. He also described the highest levels of leadership as "first word" and "second word," whose responsibilities included overseeing the clique's finances, disbursement and use of weapons, and discipline. Mr. Diaz further testified that only the clique leader designated as "first word" could issue orders authorizing or providing the "greenlight" for a murder.
The government also presented expert witness testimony from Frank Florez, a detective with the Los Angeles Police Department assigned to a gang task force. Mr. Flores testified regarding the history, characteristics, and operations of MS–13 in the United States and El Salvador. He also testified that leadership is obtained by earning a reputation through violent acts in allegiance to their motto of "matar, violar, controlar" or kill, rape, control. Flores further corroborated Mr. Diaz's testimony regarding "first word" and the issuance of a "greenlight" to kill targeted victims.
In addition to the expert witness testimony, the government presented several other witnesses in support of their case against Argueta. Jesus Canales testified that Argueta ordered the murder of Ms. Diaz at a meeting of the LPS clique. He also testified that he participated in the murder of Ms. Diaz and the attempted murder of Ms. Tran with fellow LPS member Jeffrey Villatoro based on the order from Argueta. Alirio Osorio also testified that he heard Argueta issue the "green light" at a meeting and that Argueta was present on the day of Ms. Diaz's murder at which time he also authorized the plan to kill Ms. Tran. However, Ms. Tran, who survived a gunshot wound to the face and two stab wounds, testified that she did not see Argueta the day of the incident. Essentially, the government's theory of the case was that Argueta was the person in the LPS clique who held the position of "first word" at the time of Ms. Diaz's murder and that he was responsible for her murder.
Argueta's defense counsel presented an expert witness, Dr. Thomas Ward, in an attempt to refute some of the government's expert witness testimony regarding the MS–13 gang. Dr. Ward opined that decision making within the gang was a much more "organic" process and that "first word" has more to do with the structure of a meeting than decision-making authority. He further described the concept of a "green light" as more akin to a decision made by the consensus from the group instead of a decision left to the sole authority of "first word."
After he was convicted, Argueta appealed, claiming, inter alia, that the district court erred by permitting the prosecution to Dr. Ward "regarding his participation in a Buddhist meditation ritual." Specifically, according to the Fourth Circuit,
the government sought to attack Dr. Ward's expertise by highlighting his numerous and varied research interests, including the use of urine in different cultures, mental retardation in the elderly, HIV clinical trials, and meditation. With specific reference to Dr. Ward's interest in meditation, the government questioned Dr. Ward regarding his participation in a "dark retreat," a Buddhist meditation ritual. The ritual was listed as a research experience on Dr. Ward's online biographical summary posted by the university at which he worked as an adjunct professor. The government did not inquire as to the religious aspects of the ritual, but primarily focused on the logistics of the ritual and the possible psychological effects of the ritual.
And, according to the court,
Contrary to Argueta's assertions, the government's cross-examination of Dr. Ward was not intended to show that Dr. Ward's religious beliefs impaired his credibility, but rather to demonstrate that Dr. Ward's interests in a multitude of seemingly unrelated topics underscored his lack of expertise in any particular subject matter. Accordingly, the district court properly allowed the government to question Dr. Ward regarding his meditation experience.