The Role of Expert Witnesses in Psychological Blow Automatism Cases

By Wells, Helene; Wilson, Paul | Psychiatry, Psychology and Law, April 2004 | Go to article overview
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The Role of Expert Witnesses in Psychological Blow Automatism Cases


Wells, Helene, Wilson, Paul, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law


Automatism is a defence in criminal violence that raises some critical issues about the role of the expert witness in the determination of guilt and innocence. The recent Australian case of R V Leonboyer illustrates some of these issues including psychiathsts and psychologists going beyond their area of expertise, establishing reasonable doubt on the basis of possibilities rather than probabilities and failing to differentiate between automatic behaviour and its causes. Though there may be a necessity to utilise the experience of psychologists and psychiatrists to explain the complex issues arising from the defence of automatism, there are particular problems in using such expert witnesses in this under-researched and complex area.

Automatism is a defence in criminal violence that raises important issues about the role of expert witnesses in evaluating human behaviour. The Victorian Supreme Court case and subsequent appeal of R v Leonboyer illustrates these issues clearly (R v Leonboyer [1999], VSC 422; R v Leonboyer [2001], VSCA 149). In particular, R v Leonboyer demonstrates that "experts" in human behaviour may be enticed to act as advocates rather than as impartial purveyors of the truth. One of the major criticisms of the role of expert witnesses in the criminal justice system, especially when the human behaviour under investigation-in this case automatism--is that it lacks a definitive scientific body of knowledge.

The major purpose of this paper is to analyse the role experts can play in determining the psychological aspects of evidence in relation to automatism. In addition, R v Leonboyer highlights the complexities associated with psychological blow automatism cases and the possibility of feigning this defence. A factual background to R v Leonboyer is provided with reference to verbal and physical activity relating to the crime. In addition, the relationship of the victim and offender is examined pertaining to the proposition that jealousy, physical abuse and threats of violence were contributing factors to the offender's behaviour. An explanation of automatism is offered--specifically psychological blow automatism. Finally, an analysis of the experts' roles in R v Leonboyer is presented.

Factual Background

The accused, Michael Leonboyer, was 24 years old at the time he killed his girlfriend, Sandra Morales. He was born in Chile, but moved to Australia at a young age with his family. Michael's parents divorced in 1980; however, he continued to have intermittent contact with his father. Michael's mother remarried in 1994 but separated from her husband soon after. Michael graduated from university in 1995 with a business degree and in 1996 with a law degree. At the time of Sandra's death, Michael was completing his Master's degree in Taxation and Competition Law (Brief of Evidence: re death of Sandra Morales; R v Leonboyer [2001], VSCA 149).

The victim, Sandra Morales, was 19 years old and completing year 11 studies at the time she was murdered. Born in Columbia, Sandra and her three sisters moved to Australia in 1993 to live with their mother in Melbourne. Sandra met Michael at a Spanish nightclub soon after her arrival in Australia. The two began a serious relationship and lived with Michael's mother, announcing their engagement in January 1997. This relationship soon dissolved and Sandra returned to live with her mother and sisters. Sandra was a popular member of her extended family and enjoyed dancing with her sisters, mother and cousins. Her English improved considerably during her time with Michael because he encouraged and preferred her to speak in English, as opposed to Spanish (Brief of Evidence: re death of Sandra Morales).

There is some contention regarding the nature of Sandra and Michael's relationship at the time Sandra was murdered. Michael stated that Sandra was his fiancee whereas Sandra's family believed the couple were "re-establishing" their relationship after a period of fighting (Statement of Michael Leonboyer, May 6, 1997, p.

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