The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in United States v. Hill on Monday, April 28, 2014.
Stanley Hill appealed his conviction of several charges related to a robbery of a bank in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Stanley Hill and his brother, Vernon Hill, were charged with bank robbery after a tracking device on stolen bills led police to Stanley’s father’s house, where Stanley and Vernon were arrested. Stanley claimed that he had spent the night at his girlfriend’s house and was sleeping at the father’s house at the time the robbery occurred. A Tulsa police officer and an FBI agent, Agent Jones, conducted a taped interview of Stanley in which he denied involvement in the robbery.
Agent Jones testified at trial as a qualified expert. His testimony discussed his theory of the case, that Stanley had been the getaway driver during the robbery. Agent Jones also testified that he had been specially trained to detect untruthfulness, and that in his opinion Stanley was not truthful during testimony. He offered several points to emphasize his opinion of Stanley’s untruthfulness.
Although a contemporaneous objection was not made to Agent Jones’ testimony, the Tenth Circuit conducted a plain error review and determined that the testimony regarding Stanley’s truthfulness was impermissible. Stanley did not argue that Agent Jones was unqualified to testify under FRE 702, but rather that the subject matter of his testimony—the credibility of another person—was outside the scope of Rule 702. The Tenth Circuit agreed, noting that such testimony usurps the function of the jury, is not helpful to the jury, and can unduly influence a jury because a credible expert holds more authority to the average juror than a defendant.
The Tenth Circuit determined that the error was not harmless. The prosecution did not have a strong case against Stanley, and much of their evidence against him hinged on the proposition that his testimony was false. The Tenth Circuit acknowledged that Stanley showed that there was a reasonable probability that he would not have been convicted without Agent Jones’ testimony. The Tenth Circuit issued a warning to the defense bar that reversal in the absence of contemporaneous objection is a rare exception rather than the rule, but Stanley satisfied all four prongs of the plain error standard and the case was reversed and remanded with instructions for vacation of the sentence and convictions.