Defendant's Proposed Mental Health Expert Testimony regarding Insanity and Mens Rea Deemed Unreliable and Unhelpful; Ruling Not Disturbed by Supreme Court

Developments in Mental Health Law, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Defendant's Proposed Mental Health Expert Testimony regarding Insanity and Mens Rea Deemed Unreliable and Unhelpful; Ruling Not Disturbed by Supreme Court


The so-called "mental status defenses"--such as the insanity defense and an assertion that the defendant lacked the requisite mens rea (i.e., intent) for a charged offense--tend to be heavily dependent on supporting mental health expert testimony. At the same time, perhaps because courts are uncomfortable or unfamiliar with this testimony, the admissibility of this evidence tends to be closely regulated. A case that arose out of the District of Columbia, reviewed by a federal court of appeals, indicates how pivotal this evidence can be, the scrutiny it is likely to undergo, and the limitations placed on its admissibility.

The defendant, an insurance broker, had been hired by various employee benefit plans and a charity to procure insurance for them. Instead of obtaining this insurance, however, the defendant from 1994 to 2004 diverted the $1.5 million he received to his own use. Charged with fraud, theft, and embezzlement, the defendant claimed that severe physical and emotional damage to his body and brain rendered him unable to form the intent (i.e., the mens rea) to defraud or deceive. He attributed this damage to depression resulting from the death in 1990 of his business and domestic partner, vascular dementia, and three strokes he suffered in 1996, 1999, and 2001. To support his claim, the defendant attempted to introduce the testimony of four expert witnesses who he claimed would establish his inability to form the requisite mens rea to commit the charged crimes. The trial court excluded this testimony and, on appeal, the District of Columbia Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upheld this exclusion. Although the defendant attempted to establish his defense alternatively through lay testimony, he was ultimately found guilty and received a sentence of 108 months' imprisonment.

The defendant initially attempted to promote his claim by relying on the testimony of three experts: (1) a professor of radiology and nuclear medicine, (2) a neuropsychologist, and (3) a neuroscientist. The neuroscientist was the key as the other two witnesses did not offer any diagnosis of the defendant, but simply reported and explained the results of examinations they had conducted on him (a P.E.T. scan and a battery of neuropsychological tests). In contrast, the neuroscientist incorporated their results into his diagnosis of the defendant. As the trial judge described it, the three experts were "three legs of a stool, and the stool cannot stand unless all three legs are there," with the neuroscientist the "weak leg in the stool." The defendant did not dispute that the neuroscientist's testimony was critical.

The neuroscientist in his report concluded that the defendant's "clinical Depression, demonstrated brain damage, and decreased blood flow contributed to impaired critical judgment in daily decisions," that the defendant's voluntary and deliberate actions were substantially impaired by the "Major Depression" he experienced, and "to a high probability [he] could not have appreciated the repercussions of his actions or purposely intended to violate the law." The trial judge characterized the neuroscientist's testimony as unreliable and unhelpful, stressing that the neuroscientist was not a medical doctor but a research scientist and thus was "unqualified to render a diagnosis of any psychiatric or medical condition from which [the defendant] might have been suffering at the time he committed the charged offenses. …

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