Use of Expert Mental Health Testimony in Criminal Cases

United States v. West, No. 14-2514, 2015 WL 9487929 (7th Cir. Dec. 30, 2015)

In a case of illegal gun possession that rested almost exclusively on defendant’s replies to police questioning that the gun in question was his, testimony by an expert that the defendant’s admission was unreliable due his low IQ, mental illness and high suggestibility should not be excluded.

Background: Antonio West was indicted for possessing a firearm as a felon in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g). The gun was found in the attic of the family home during a consensual search for a stolen television. No fingerprints were recovered from the gun, and there was conflicting evidence regarding whether West actually lived in the home in which the gun was found. As such, the case for possession rested on West’s admission to police that the gun was his. West’s attorney moved to suppress his statements to police based on expert testimony that West had a low IQ, suffered from mental illness, and scored highly on the Gudjonsson Suggestibility Scale. The district court denied the motion, finding that West had competently and voluntarily waived his Miranda rights. West’s attorney then moved to admit the expert testimony at trial to (1) assist the jury in assessing the reliability of the confession, (2) negate the intent element of the offense, and (3) explain West’s demeanor should he testify. The judge excluded the evidence on all three grounds and the jury found West guilty.

Holding: On appeal, the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision of the district court and remanded for a new trial. The Court agreed with West that the exclusion of expert testimony regarding West’s IQ was reversible error. Because the government’s case relied heavily on the jury’s acceptance of West’s confession, the district court’s decision to exclude expert testimony regarding the potential reliability of that confession could not have been harmless error.

Notable Points

The expert’s testimony regarding West’s IQ was relevant to the question of the reliability of the confession: The Seventh Circuit held that expert testimony explaining that a defendant’s low IQ and mental illness could have influenced his responses to officers’ questions was certainly relevant and admissible where the major issue at trial was the reliability of the defendant’s confession. The expert testimony was highly relevant to the jury’s consideration of the defendant’s personal characteristics, and the government’s objection to the testimony went properly to its weight, not admissibility.

Erroneous exclusion of expert testimony warranted a new trial: Because the government’s case depended on whether the defendant knowingly possessed a firearm as a felon, and that determination rested largely on the defendant’s confession, the expert should have been allowed to testify. If he had, the jury might have discounted the defendant’s statement admitting that the gun was his. Given that, a new trial was required.

Found in Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 1