Friday, December 29, 2006

Ohio Supreme Court Rules on "Battered Woman Syndrome" Testimony

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Thursday that expert testimony on "battered woman syndrome" may be offered in the prosecution’s case-in-chief to help a jury understand a victim’s reaction to abuse in relation to her credibility, so long as the expert does not diagnose the complainant as a battered woman or opine that the accused is a batterer. From the opinion:
An expert witness who diagnoses a victim as a battered woman essentially concludes that the defendant is a batterer. In a case where the underlying charges involve domestic violence, such a conclusion by an expert witness is prejudicial to the defendant and usurps the jury’s role as finder-of-fact. A diagnosis can prejudice a defendant further because the expert is presenting a conclusion regarding the victim’s credibility, which again is a conclusion to be made by the jury. In cases where domestic violence is not the underlying charge, but battered-woman-syndrome testimony is offered to explain the conflicting statements or activities of a witness, a defendant can again be prejudiced by being labeled as a batterer. Thus, courts must carefully balance the admission of expert testimony on battered woman syndrome under Evid. R. 403.

An acceptable balance is best achieved through a tailoring of the expert’s testimony. Limitations placed upon the expert’s testimony -- “the expert cannot opine that complainant was a battered woman, may not testify that defendant was a batterer or that he is guilty of the crime, and cannot comment on whether complainant was being truthful” -- dispel concerns about unfair prejudice. [People v. Christel, 449 Mich. 578, 591, 537 N.W.2d 194 (1995).] The rule in most jurisdictions is that general testimony regarding battered woman syndrome may aid a jury in evaluating evidence, and that if the expert expresses no opinion as to whether the victim suffers from battered woman syndrome or does not opine on which of her conflicting statements is more credible, such testimony does not interfere with or impinge upon the jury's role in determining the credibility of witnesses. [State v. Townsend, 186 N.J. 473, 496-498, 897 A.2d 316 (2006).] “[T]he prosecutorial introduction of testimony on the battered woman syndrome must be in accordance with the applicable Ohio Rules of Evidence. The best way to approach this is by utilizing the limited format advocated by the courts in [State v. Ciskie, 110 Wash. 2d 263, 751 P.2d 1165 (1988)] and [Arcoren v. United States, 929 F.2d 1235 (8th Cir. 1991)]. Under this approach, experts who are called to testify in domestic violence prosecutions must limit their testimony to the general characteristics of a victim suffering from the battered woman syndrome. The expert may also answer hypothetical questions regarding specific abnormal behaviors exhibited by women suffering from the syndrome, but should never offer an opinion relative to the alleged victim in the case.” [Hawes, Removing the Roadblocks to Successful Domestic Violence Prosecutions: Prosecutorial Use of Expert Testimony on the Battered Woman Syndrome in Ohio, 53 Clev. St. L. Rev. 133, 158 (2005).]
See State v. Haines, 2006-Ohio-6711 (Dec. 28, 2006).


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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.