No witness, expert or otherwise, may give an opinion that a mentally competent witness is telling the truth. State v. Haseltine, 120 Wis. 2d 92, 352 N.W.2d 673 (Ct. App. 1984). This case, which the court of appeals calls “close,” holds that an expert may give an opinion that a category of individuals generally lacks the sophistication to concoct a sexual assault claim.
A jury convicted Pringle of sexually assaulting “Molly,” a person who suffers from a mental illness or deficiency, in violation of §940.225(2)(c). Pringle’s defense was that Molly fabricated the charge. He requested a new trial in the interest of justice because the DA posed a question to an expert aimed at eliciting testimony that would violate Haseltine, and the expert responded accordingly.
Specifically, Cindy Zellner-Ehlers, a licensed social worker, had been employed for 35 years as a developmental disabilities program manager for Door County DHS. She had worked with Molly for about 25 years as a case manager and as a counselor.
At trial, the State asked Ehlers a question that even the court of appeals found “improper”:
What about Molly’s level of sophistication as it related to concocting a story or conspiring to present a lie, tell a lie, or create some sort of false story?
That’s a lesson I learned really early in my career is that that is one thing about people with developmental disabilities, wherever they are in the spectrum. It’s really—they don’t— they lack the sophistication to be cunning and conspire or feign a situation. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s very rare that it happens. Particularly with people who have cognitive limitations.
[I]f you’re going to conspire, you have to have some kind of thought process that is convoluted enough to be able to concoct a story or create a story. That takes sophistication. That takes thinking skills that are oftentimes far beyond a level that a person with cognitive limitations can master. Opinion, ¶6.
Trial counsel did not object to this question and answer. On appeal, Pringle argued that he was entitled to a new trial in the interests of justice because the real controversy had not been tried. Ehlers’ testimony violated Haseltine and thereby clouded the central issue–did Molly fabricate the claim after the two of them had been involved in a dispute? The court of appeals rejected this argument because Ehlers did not testify about Molly’s truthfulness, and she qualified her answer.
¶25 As we acknowledged above, this is a close case. The State’s question to Ehlers asking her to provide an opinion as to whether Molly had the sophistication needed to concoct a false story was clearly improper. The obvious purpose of that question was to elicit testimony from Ehlers that, because of Molly’s cognitive disabilities, she would have been unable to fabricate a story about Pringle sexually assaulting her. Critically, however, Ehlers did not respond to the State’s question in that manner. Instead, Ehlers testified generally about the ability of individuals with cognitive disabilities to fabricate stories. Moreover, Ehlers did not testify categorically that individuals with cognitive disabilities lack that ability; she merely testified that is often the case.
¶26 On these facts, the effect of Ehlers’ testimony was not to vouch for Molly’s credibility or to provide an opinion that Molly was telling the truth about the alleged assault. Rather, Ehlers merely provided the jury with general information about the capabilities of individuals with cognitive disabilities. Ehlers’ testimony did not prevent the jury from drawing its own conclusions about whether Molly was telling the truth. As such, we cannot conclude that Ehlers’ testimony created too great a risk that the jury abdicated its fact-finding role to Ehlers or that her testimony so clouded the crucial issue of Molly’s credibility as to prevent the real controversy from being fully tried. Thus, despite the State’s improper question, we reject Pringle’s argument that this is the type of “exceptional” case warranting discretionary reversal in the interest of justice.
The court of appeals also held that Ehlers’ testimony did not prejudice Pringle because the jury was told that they are the sole judges of credibility and they are not bound by an expert’s opinion. See Wis JI Criminal 300 and 200. Opinion, ¶19.