Family Law Prof Blog

Editor: Margaret Ryznar
Indiana University
Robert H. McKinney School of Law

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Case Law Development: Expert Testimony In Child Abuse Actions

State v. MacLennan, 2005 Minn. LEXIS 480 (Minn. 2005)

    This case involved a 17-year-old boy who shot his father and, to support his claim of self-defense, sought to introduce expert testimony on battered child syndrome.  The trial court denied his motion and he was convicted of first-degree murder.  The Minnesota Supreme Court affirmed the conviction on the basis that the defense had not provided allegations of physical or sexual abuse that would be a necessary foundation for the introduction of BCS evidence. 

    Nonetheless, the court goes on to analyze the issue of whether Minnesota recognized expert testimony regarding this syndrome and the relevant standard for admissibility of that evidence.  Minnesota is one of the states which applies the “generally acceptance” standards of Frye v. United States, 293 F. 1013, 1014 (D.C. Cir. 1923)  for the admissability of scientific evidence, rather than the test of Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals, Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 113 S. Ct. 2786, 125 L.Ed. 2d 469 (1993), which requires expert testimony to have a reliable basis in the knowledge and experience of the relevant discipline.  Here, the court held that the Frye standard, and its necessary hearings to determine acceptance by the scientific community, does not apply to expert testimony on "battered child syndrome."

    The court reasoned that, unlike most testimony grounded in the physical sciences, which is based on complex tests and often provides proof of what actually happened in the case, testimony by "syndromes" experts provides general explanations for human behavior and may not be used to prove whether a defendant actually suffers from the syndrome.  Thus, the court concluded that the Frye standard for evaluating scientific evidence was unsuitable and admissibility should turn on whether the evidence meets Minn. R. Evid. 702, which focuses inquiry primarily on whether the evidence will assist the jury. 

Text of opinion on the web at:


To read more about it:

Sarah H. Ramsey & Robert F. Kelly, Social Science Knowledge in Family Law Cases: Judicial Gate-Keeping in the Daubert Era, 59 U. Miami L. Rev. 1 (2004)


Stewart W. Gagnon, Daubert, its Progeny, And Their Effect on Family Law Litigation in State Courts, American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, at (last visited August 21, 2005)


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