Can a Domestic Violence Advocate Testify as an Expert Witness? Follow the ABC's of Expert Testimony Standards in Texas Courts: Assist the Trier of Fact Be Relevant and Reliable Credentials Must Be Established

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

It has been shown that laypersons generally hold misconceptions related to domestic violence.2 These misunderstandings, especially when held by jurors, can negate the seriousness of the violence as well as the victim's response of fear. Domestic violence advocates, on the other hand, understand the dynamics of domestic violence and this victim phenomenon. Because it is important that a jury understand the characteristics of domestic violence, prosecutors and defense attorneys may introduce domestic violence expert testimony in their cases.3 Experts can be used in domestic violence cases in a variety of circumstances; the three main reasons for using an expert are: (1) assisting the judge and jury in comprehending the relevance of abuse to the legal issues raised in the case, (2) assisting lawyers to ensure that the client's story of abuse and its implications are fully understood and presented, and (3) supplementing the testimony of the battered victim.4 The domestic violence experts utilized by prosecutors and defense attorneys tend to be psychological and medical experts.5 However, domestic violence advocates can similarly testify in domestic violence cases as experts.

Originally admitted in the context of battered women's self-defense cases, expert testimony about domestic violence has been applied in a variety of other legal contexts despite questions of its admissibility,6 from "criminal prosecutions of women charged with a crime in which violence may have played a role [to] criminal prosecutions of domestic violence perpetrators . . . [and] marital dissolution and child custody proceedings."7 Although the use of domestic violence experts has increased over the years, the experts tend to conform to the traditional notion of what constitutes an expert-a highly educated, medical and/or psychological witness. Based on the flux in state and federal standards for admissibility of expert testimony, using these 'scientific' experts was arguably the only way to have their testimony admitted. Yet, both the Federal and Texas Rules of Evidence and Texas case precedent establish that nonscientific, victim advocate testimony can also be admitted as expert testimony.8 Nevertheless, the benefits of using domestic violence advocates as experts have not been fully recognized.

Advocates play a critical role in domestic violence cases from the case's inception to the posttrial phases. Most "smart prosecutors appreciate that advocates can be indispensable to virtually every aspect of case handling."9 Generally, advocates in a prosecution not only support the victim, but the prosecutor as well. As a consultant for the prosecutor, advocates can provide "comprehensive intakes [of the victim], which include the entire history of abuse, dynamics of the current relationship . . . the individual victim's reasons for staying with the abuser . . . any unsympathetic or conflicting information . . . and other relevant matters."10 Yet, despite the advocates' knowledge of the victim, and of domestic violence generally, prosecutors and defense attorneys infrequently use advocates as experts in trials.11

In an effort to make the use of victim advocates as experts a viable option for domestic violence attorneys, this paper explores the rules of evidence as they relate to the admissibility of victim advocate expert testimony on domestic violence. Part II of this paper briefly explores the history of expert testimony standards in Federal and Texas courts. Part III addresses the specifics of what courts require to admit expert testimony generally; and more particularly, it is focused on admissibility requirements for nonmedical, experience based expert testimony such as that given by a domestic violence victim advocate. Although the Rules of Evidence and Texas precedent clearly establish that such experts and their testimony can be admitted, there is still a reluctance to use victim advocates as experts. Consequently, Part IV surveys Texas case law to demonstrate that not only are such experts being used, but also that their testimony is being successfully admitted. …