Sixth Circuit Affirms Gang Expert Witness Testimony

Defendants’ appealed RICO convictions on numerous grounds, one of which was a challenge to the district court’s decision to allow expert witness testimony of gang expert witnesses.  The appeals court confirmed the opinion of the district court.

Facts: This case (USA v. Antonio Rios – United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – July 21st, 2016) involves a conviction of two defendants on numerous Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) charges.  During pretrial, the government stated that it would utilize two gangs expert witnesses, Keith Bevacqui and Kristopher Haglund. Bevacqui would provide expert testimony on the Latin Kings national organization and Haglund would discuss the unique aspects of the Holland chapter of the Latin Kings as well as who is a member of the Holland Latin Kings.

The defendants filed a motion to exclude the expert witness testimony of both witnesses, stating that Bevacqui could not apply his principles and methods reliably and Haglund did not have a reliable methodology, would be testifying on fact witness information, and would confuse the jury because he would be testifying as an expert witness as well as a fact witness in this case.  The district court denied these motions.  On appeal, the defendants argue that Bevacqui’s testimony was unreliable and irrelevant  because he didn’t know anything about the Holland Latin Kings.  In addition, they state that Haglund’s testimony mixed fact and expert witness testimony together, whish was confusing to jury.

Discussion: The appeals court begins the discussion by looking at the law regarding law enforcement experts.  It stated that law enforcement expertise is relevant with regard to the inner workings of organized crime because these matters are generally beyond the understanding of the average person.  In addition, the court stated that this type of testimony is reliable when it is based on significant experience on the gang about which the expert is testifying.

In relation to Bevacqui, the defendants argue that his knowledge about the Latin Kings is not related to the Holland Latin Kings, making his testimony irrelevant and unreliable.  The court disagreed, opining that Bevacqui did not provide his expert opinion on the Holland Latin Kings.  To be sure, Bevacqui testified on the nationwide Latin Kings and the government attempted to create a link between the two.  Thus, Bevacqui’s testimony was appropriate.

Another issue that arises is when a law enforcement expert is also a fact witness in a case.  This creates a possibility that the jury will be confused by the dual role.  In a previous opinion on the issue, the present court stated that the district court and the prosecutor to take care that the jury is informed of the dual roles, that of expert witness of and fact witness.

The court did agree with the defendants on this issue.  They opined that Haglund strayed into territory with facts that is within the average juror’s ability to understand.  By doing so, his expertise can become irrelevant.  They also stated that the court and the prosecutor did not make sure that his testimony was not delineated (fact versus expert witness) and revealed to the jury.  Thus, the court opined that allowing Haglund’s testimony was in error.

However, the court also opined that this error was harmless as much of his testimony was separately confirmed by other fact witnesses and they cannot say whether or not that the error affected the verdict.  Thus, the court affirmed the opinion of the district court.

Conclusion:  The opinion of the district court allowing the testimony of gang witnesses is upheld.