Forensic Psychology Expert Witness’ Testimony is Relevant in Insanity Defense

Summary: A conviction for assault with a deadly weapon with intent to do bodily harm and assault causing serious bodily injury was vacated, and the case was remanded for a new trial.  The court ruled that defendant should have been allowed to have his Forensic Psychology Expert Witness  testify, which would have allowed defendant to present his insanity defense to the jury.

Facts: In U.S v. Ray (U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit), two defendants, Patrick Bacon and Daniel Ray, were convicted of assault with a deadly weapon.  Bacon and Ray were both jailed in Victorville Federal Prison in California when they coordinated a stabbing of multiple correctional officers.  Security cameras recorded the attacks.

After a grand jury indicted Bacon and Ray, they were sent to trial.  Prior to trial Bacon gave notice, pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 12.2, that he would put forth an insanity defense.  The government filed a motion in limine to preclude Bacon’s Forensic Psychology Expert Witness Dr. Karim from testifying.  Dr. Karim had opined in a report that Bacon suffered chronic mental illness throughout his life, that he was on a downward spiral, and as a result, it would be reasonable to conclude “with a high degree of clinical certainty” that he would have had difficulty understanding the nature of his actions at the time of the assault.

The government argued that the Forensic Psychology Expert Witness’ testimony was not relevant because Dr. Karim did not opine that Bacon suffered from any mental health disorder on the date of the attacks, that his opinions were not based on medical literature, that he did not explain the results of the tests on Bacon, and that his opinions were hearsay. The district court granted the motion to exclude Dr. Karim pursuant to Rule 702 and Daubert, agreeing with the government’s arguments.

Both Bacon and Ray were found guilty of two counts assault with a deadly weapon. They were sentenced to 120 months and 100 months, respectively.  On appeal, Bacon argued that the district court should have allowed his Forensic Psychology Expert witness to testify, which would have allowed him to present an insanity defense.

Discussion:  On appeal, the panel wrote that the Forensic Psychology Expert Witness’s report demonstrates that his evaluation of the defendant was relevant to the insanity defense, and that the district court therefore abused its discretion by excluding the Forensic Psychology Expert Witness testimony on the ground that the expert witness did not opine that the defendant was unable to appreciate the nature of his acts at the time of the attack. The court wrote that this was the wrong legal standard. Instead, the panel found the lower court should have focused on whether the testimony would have been relevant, and assisted the jury in deciding a key issue: the effect of a mental disorder on Bacon’s ability to appreciate what he was doing at the time of the assault.

Conclusion: The Appellate Court did not rule that the lower court must admit the testimony of Forensic Psychology Expert Witness Dr. Karim.  Rather, they ruled that the district court abused its discretion in ruling his testimony was not relevant to the insanity defense. The court ruled that to fulfill its gatekeeping function under Daubert and Rule 702 , the district court should determine whether the Psychology Expert Witness’ testimony is reliable. They held that the exclusion of the expert’s testimony was not harmless because without it the defendant was unable to present his insanity defense.

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