Sunday, January 11, 2004

New York Ponders "Beyond Any Doubt" Standard for Capital Cases

On 11/2/03, we posted on the proposal of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney to limit the death penalty to cases where the physical and forensic evidence satisfies "the highest evidentiary standard." Call this the "gatekeeping" method of tinkering with the machinery of death.

Today's New York Times now reports that capital defense lawyers are asking the New York Court of Appeals to adopt a new and higher standard of proof in death penalty cases: "beyond any doubt." Call this the "burden of proof" approach.

To what extent would the "burden of proof" method tend to bring the "gatekeeping" method in its wake?

Under the "reasonable doubt" standard, the two inquiries (admissibility and weight) still seem distinct in practice -- at least in federal criminal cases, which are the only criminal cases we tend to read. The "reasonable doubt" standard, that is, has little or no apparent application to discretionary judicial decisions to admit forensic testimony with questionably reliable methodological and scientific foundations. The "reasonable doubt" calculus applies primarily, or only, to what jurors could reasonably conclude from the evidence, once it has been permissibly admitted.

But "beyond any doubt" would seem to up the ante, to the point of requiring something close to certainty. And the New York Court of Appeals has noted, on more than one occasion, that "expert opinion testimony is used in partial substitution for the jury's otherwise exclusive province which is to draw conclusions from the facts. It is a kind of authorized encroachment in that respect." People v. Lee, 96 N.Y.2d 157 (2001). If, as the New York defense lawyers urge, the New York Constitution should be read to impose a requirement that capital convictions be essentially doubt-free, then it becomes reasonable to ask whether testimony from a prosecution expert could constitutionally support a conviction, unless the expert's "conclusions from the facts" were themselves valid "beyond any doubt."
Fed. R. Evid. 702: If scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education, may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise, if (1) the testimony is based upon sufficient facts or data, (2) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods, and (3) the witness has applied the principles and methods reliably to the facts of the case.