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Erroneous exclusion of expert testimony about false confession merits new trial

United States v. Antonio West, 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Case No. 14-2514, 12/30/15

The trial court erroneously excluded expert evidence that West sought to admit regarding factors that made him susceptible to making an unreliable confession to a crime.

West, a felon, confessed to possessing a firearm. He moved to suppress his statement arguing he wasn’t competent to understand and waive his Miranda rights. At the suppression hearing West presented expert testimony that he has a low IQ, significant mental illness, and scores on the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale that show he was prone to change his answers when confronted by an authority figure. When the suppression motion was denied, West sought to admit the same expert testimony at trail on the issue of the reliability of his confession. Though the government conceded the expert’s testimony was admissible for that purpose, the trial court excluded the evidence.

The trial court erred:

We’ve explained before that competent expert testimony is admissible when it helps establish “that someone interrogating [the defendant] would experience difficulty obtaining reliable answers[] because [the defendant] was easily led.” [United States v.Hall, 93 F.3d [1337,] 1345 [(7th Cir. 1996)]. Indeed, our circuit’s pattern jury instruction on confessions directs the jury to “consider all of the evidence, including the defendant’s personal characteristics,” in deciding how much weight to give a defendant’s inculpatory statement. Federal Criminal Jury Instructions of the Seventh Circuit  § 3.09 (2012) (emphasis added).

Dr. Dinwiddie’s expert testimony would have explained West’s low IQ and mental illness and how these combined conditions might have influenced his responses to the officers’ questions while in police custody. We think it plain that expert testimony that West is a suggestible, mentally ill person with a verbal IQ of 73 bears on the reliability of his statements to police. Testimony of this type is highly relevant to the jury’s consideration of a defendant’s “personal characteristics”—exactly the sort of evidence that a jury ought to be permitted to hear to assess the trustworthiness of the defendant’s statements to the police. The judge did not abuse his discretion in disallowing the use of this evidence for the other purposes identified in the defense motion, but Dr. Dinwiddie’s testimony was clearly relevant and admissible on the issue of the reliability of West’s confession, as the government itself acknowledged.

The judge never addressed this ground of admissibility, instead concluding that expert testimony about West’s mental disabilities would invite a “backdoor” insanity acquittal. That ruling misapprehended the primary ground of admissibility West had advanced in his motion, which in turn led to the erroneous exclusion of evidence everyone agreed was relevant and admissible.

(Slip op. at 10-11). And the error isn’t harmless because the government’s case for possession rested largely on West’s confession. (Slip op. at 11-12).

On Point thought this federal court decision would interest state practitioners, given that no published Wisconsin case has directly addressed the admissibility of expert testimony about false confessions. The issue has been raised in Wisconsin only in the context of claims that trial counsel was ineffective for not presenting such testimony, and the court of appeals dodges the question of admissibility by saying trial counsel couldn’t be ineffective for failing to present the evidence because there’s no case saying the evidence is admissible. For more, see our post on State v. Van Buren, 2008 WI App 26, 307 Wis. 2d 447, 746 N.W. 2d 545.

For more about the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale, see here.

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