Friday, January 07, 2005

The Yates Imbroglio

It is one of those recurring legal ironies. The biggest disasters to befall expert testimony often have nothing to do with the expert's opinion. They often involve the expert's testimony on matters of brute fact.

That is how matters now stand with Dr. Park E. Dietz, the psychiatrist and former FBI profiler who testified as the sole prosecution expert on Andrea Yates's sanity in her murder trial. As everyone surely knows by now, Yates pleaded post-partum psychosis after drowning her five children in a bathtub. Dr. Dietz, who had incidentally served as a consultant for the television drama "Law and Order," suggested at Yates's trial that she may have drawn inspiration from a contemporaneous episode of the tv show in which a character was acquitted, by reason of insanity, on charges stemming from similar drownings -- a theory on which the Yates prosecutors then placed substantial reliance in closing argument. The Yates jury went on to reject her insanity plea, but a Texas appellate court has now overturned the jury's verdict, because as it turns out, no such episode of "Law and Order" had aired when Yates killed her children.

Dr. Dietz, who has already been cleared of perjury charges, says his testimony was an honest mistake -- the product of a spurious memory he blames on misinformation supplied to him by prosecutors. Prosecutor types are meanwhile blaming Dietz. We didn't follow the trial, and maybe we're speaking with 20-20 hindsight, but we're provisionally inclined to see plenty of blame to go around. If you were prosecuting a case with such eerie parallels to the plot line of a prime time television drama, wouldn't you try, at least, to acquire the videotape, perhaps with an eye toward showing it to the jury? If you were an expert testifying under oath to the possible inspirational link, wouldn't you first want to review the episode carefully yourself? If you were a juror, wouldn't you wonder why nobody had shown you the episode, when it would be such a simple matter to go to the videotape? And if you were the judge, presented with Yates's motion for a mistrial, filed when the testimony's falsity finally came to light after the verdict in the guilt phase, wouldn't you . . . well, the Texas Court of Appeals has now spoken to that last question.

The moral may be this: If you are counsel and your expert's testimony depends on a critical fact, do not stop with the expert's attestation to the truth of that fact. The most honest and scrupulous experts can be just as mistaken as lay witnesses about such factual matters, so go forth and find the best independent evidence you can to support the critical fact -- and if you can't find it, be curious about the reasons.

The Texas appellate opinion is available online. See Yates v. State, No. 01-02-00462-CR (Tex. App. Houston [1st Dist.] Jan. 6, 2005).

Update 1/8/05: Maybe the real moral is actually: "Never testify about things you think you've seen on television."


Anonymous writes ...

There are so many things that kill me about this whole situation.

First, is that everyone is beating up on Tom Cruise (and rightfully so) because of his arrogant remarks about there being no such thing as post-partum depression and suggesting that Brooke Shields just needed "vitamins and exercise". Everyone rushed to support Shields in proclaiming that post-partum depression is very real.

2. Yet, here we have a housewife, treated for the same illness several times, prior to the day she killed her kids, yet the jury and millions of people refused to believe that she was mentally ill.

3. Despite the jury stating that she wasn't mentally ill, she has been treated for depression for the entire time she has been in prison.

4. And the last thing, she was checked into clinics on at least two prior occassions for her post-partum depression but was forced to leave when the coverage on her husband's health insurance maxed out.

The moral: Apparently, because of the screwed up health care situation we have in this country, a woman has to kill her kids before she can get the treatment she needs to prevent her from killing her kids. Ass backwards.

4:09 PM  

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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.