In Federal Court, a Forensic Psychologist Can Disclose Information to a Jury That Constitutes Hearsay If Its Probative Value Substantially Outweighs Its Prejudicial Effect; Fourth Circuit Does Not Address Crawford Issue

Article excerpt

Mental health professionals conducting forensic evaluations generally rely on a wide range of information in reaching their opinions. However, because the sources of that information may not be available for cross-examination, an objection may be raised at trial that recounting this information constitutes inadmissible hearsay (i.e., evidence based not on a witness' personal knowledge, but on another's statement that was not made under oath) and should be excluded under the rules of evidence generally applicable to court proceedings. The Fourth Circuit rejected such an objection in a case where a psychologist provided testimony rebutting a defendant's insanity defense.

The defendant had been charged in federal court with being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. After he filed a notice of his intent to raise an insanity defense, he was transported to a correctional center for a requested psychiatric examination. Once there, his mental status was evaluated by a clinical psychologist. Having concluded that the defendant did not meet the requirements of the insanity defense, the psychologist was called as a witness by the prosecution to rebut testimony from another expert produced by the defendant that the defendant had been insane at the time of the crime.

The psychologist asserted that the defendant was malingering and testified that two inmates had separately approached another forensic psychologist at the correctional center and told his colleague that the defendant had tried to recruit them to help him appear crazy while he was on the unit. The psychologist acknowledged he had not talked to either of these inmates, and neither his colleague nor the two inmates were called to provide testimony. The defense counsel's objection that this testimony was inadmissible hearsay was unsuccessful, the jury rejected the defendant's insanity defense, and the defendant was sentenced to 230 months of imprisonment.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit ruled that even if the psychologist's testimony constituted hearsay, it was still admissible under the Federal Rules of Evidence, which govern in federal courts. The court noted that Federal Rules of Evidence 703 permits an expert to rely on facts that are not admissible in evidence if they are of a type reasonably relied upon by experts in that particular field in forming opinions. …