Saturday, April 21, 2007

Minnesota Supreme Court Faults Medical Examiner's Testimony

In a decision issued this past Thursday, the Supreme Court of Minnesota voiced skepticism that a medical examiner can tell you, based solely on an inspection of a murder victim's wounds, that multiple people participated in the victim's stabbing.

On voir dire, the expert attributed his opinion to "common sense." Using a mannequin and a ruler as a knife, he demonstrated that a single individual could not inflict the wounds without exerting himself. "[A]s you see," he said, "I'm sweating quite vigorously, this is quite an exercise, this is a workout. Most people are going to do this in the easiest fashion that they can, and in my opinion that represents to me more than one stabber." Asked if other forensic pathologists would analyze the issue in similar terms, the medical examiner said: "[W]e use it all the time in our own office in terms of discussing a scenario. Whether or not other members of my -- my collegial affiliation are willing to go ahead and get on the stand and say that, I can't answer that."

On appeal from his conviction, the defendant said the medical examiner's testimony lacked foundational reliability. "This appears," said Minnesota's high court, "to be a legitimate complaint." It held, however, that any error was harmless, because: (1) the medical examiner was effectively cross-examined; (2) the defendant called an expert of his own; (3) the defendant was charged with accomplice liability; and (4) "there was no reasonable possibility that the expert's testimony substantially influenced the guilty verdict." See State v. Crow, No. A06-229 (Minn. Apr. 19, 2007).


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.