April 24, 2019

Colorado Court of Appeals: Admission of Blind Expert Testimony Not Harmless Where Issues Irrelevant to Facts of Case

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Cooper on Thursday, February 21, 2019.

Criminal Law—Evidence—“Blind” Expert Testimony—Relevance—Prejudice—Unanimity.

Cooper and L.K. were in an intimate relationship and lived together. They had a physical altercation that resulted in Cooper being charged with, among other things, third degree assault and harassment. At trial, over Cooper’s repeated objections, the prosecution presented extensive testimony from a “blind” expert witness about the characteristics of domestic violence relationships and the “power and control wheel,” a tool developed purportedly to explain how an abusive partner can use power and control to manipulate a relationship. A jury convicted Cooper of third degree assault and harassment.

On appeal, Cooper asserted that the trial court erred in admitting the blind expert witness testimony both on reliability and relevance grounds. Expert testimony should be admitted only when the expert’s opinions will help the factfinder. A blind or “cold” expert knows little or nothing about the facts of a particular case, often has not met the victim, and has not performed any forensic or psychological examination of the victim (or the defendant). Here, no evidence presented to the jury proved or suggested that before the charged incident Cooper had assaulted L.K., had physically or non-physically abused L.K., or had exercised improper control over L.K. physically, emotionally, or economically. The only way the jury could have found there was a pattern of abuse was from the testimony of the blind expert, who purportedly knew nothing about the facts of the case. There was no record evidence that related to the vast majority of the blind expert’s opinions, and the trial court abused its discretion in admitting this testimony. This error was not harmless.

Cooper also contended that the trial court erred in not instructing the jury on the requirement of unanimity. Here, the evidence “does not present a reasonable likelihood that jurors may disagree on which acts the defendant committed” regarding the third degree assault charge. Therefore, Cooper was not entitled to a unanimity instruction.
The judgment was reversed and the case was remanded for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Detective’s Testimony About Odor of Metabolized Alcohol Improperly Admitted as Lay Testimony

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Kubuugu on Monday, January 28, 2019.

Witness Qualification—Expert Testimony— Harmless Error.

This case, which involves charges of driving under the influence and child abuse, required the court to determine whether the trial court erred by admitting expert testimony under the guise of lay testimony and whether such error was harmless. Here, the trial court allowed a police officer to testify at trial, without being qualified as an expert, about the ability to detect the smell of metabolized alcohol and that he could, based on that odor, opine about the volume of alcohol ingested and the timing of when it was consumed. The officer testified that this ability was learned through specialized training and years of experience as a police officer.

The court held that the police officer’s testimony about the odor of metabolized alcohol was expert testimony under the guise of lay testimony because an ordinary person would be unable to offer the same opinion. Admitting this evidence was not harmless because it was the only evidence that specifically refuted defendant’s testimony that he only began drinking alcohol after he had parked his car.

Accordingly, the court of appeals’ judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Police Officer’s Testimony Defining Street Slang for Drug Considered Expert Testimony

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Bryant on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

Assault—Expert Testimony—Jury Instructions—MirandaWarning—Voluntary Statements—Evidence.

While high on PCP, defendant assaulted two teenagers. After defendant’s arrest, police officers interviewed him and he admitted that he was under the influence of PCP, which he initially referred to as “sherm.” Defendant told officers that they could retrieve the substance from his sock, which they did. Before trial, defendant filed several motions to suppress. The court denied all of the motions, ruling that defendant’s statements were made voluntarily and that he had validly waived his Miranda rights. Defendant was convicted of unlawful possession of a controlled substance and two counts of third degree assault.

On appeal, defendant contended that the trial court erred by ruling that his statements to the police were voluntary. He argued that the police exploited his intoxicated state during their interrogation. Here, by the time they reached the police station, defendant was calm, coherent, and cooperative. The interview lasted no more than 15 minutes; there was no evidence that defendant’s demeanor changed during the interview; and there was no evidence of psychological coercion. The trial court did not err by finding that defendant’s statements to police were voluntary.

Defendant also contended that his statements should have been suppressed because police failed to obtain a valid waiver of his Miranda rights. Defendant contended that he was so intoxicated and confused when he was advised of his Miranda rights that he did not make a knowing and intelligent waiver of those rights. The record supports the trial court’s finding that defendant was not intoxicated when he waived his Miranda rights. The trial court did not err by finding that defendant validly waived his Miranda rights.

Defendant also contended that the trial court reversibly erred by allowing Officer Fink to testify as a lay witness regarding the meaning of the term “sherm.” This testimony was not based on Officer Fink’s personal knowledge or investigation of defendant’s case, but was based on his training and experience as a police officer. Although the trial court erred by allowing Officer Fink to testify as a lay witness, the error was harmless because the testimony was cumulative of other evidence presented at trial that served to prove the “knowingly” element of the possession charge.

Defendant next contended that the trial court erred by improperly instructing the jury. First, the instruction that voluntary intoxication was not a valid defense to the charged crimes could not have confused the jury, particularly because it was a brief and correct statement of the law. Second, the pattern instruction on mens rea was legally correct and informed the jury to apply a subjective standard rather than on objective standard. There was no error in the manner in which the trial court instructed the jury.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Expert Testimony that Child Did Not Seem to be Coached Proper Under Circumstances

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Heredia-Cobos on Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Sexual Assault—Child—Forensic Interviewer—Expert Testimony—Credibility—Defendant’s Theory of the Case—Evidence—Prior Acts—CRE 404(b).

Defendant was convicted of sexual assault on his 9-year-old great niece, Y.P.

On appeal, defendant contended that the district court abused its discretion by allowing the forensic interviewer who had interviewed Y.P. to testify that Y.P. didn’t show any signs of having been coached. Although such testimony ordinarily is improper (because it’s tantamount to vouching for the child’s credibility), in this case the testimony was admissible to rebut defendant’s defense theory that Y.P. had made up the allegations. Because defendant opened the door to this testimony, it was not error to allow it.

Defendant also contended that the district court erred by allowing evidence of his prior acts of a sexual nature involving other relatives in violation of CRE 404(b). He argued that the prior acts were too dissimilar to his alleged assault of Y.P. to be admissible. Evidence that defendant physically assaulted two female relatives who lived with him was probative of defendant’s intent to sexually assault another female at his home and was relevant to refute his claim that Y.P. fabricated the allegation. Further, the other act evidence was especially relevant because Y.P.’s testimony was the only direct evidence of defendant’s guilt. Thus the potential for unfair prejudice did not outweigh the evidence’s probative value, and the district court did not err in admitting evidence of these acts. Additionally, evidence that defendant masturbated in front his 19-year old niece several times (although he did not physically assault her) was also relevant and no more potentially prejudicial than the evidence of the acts involving the other two relatives. But even assuming that allowing this evidence was error, any error was harmless.

The judgment was affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Trial Court Erred in Admitting Non-expert Testimony on Sexual Predator Grooming

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Romero v. People on Monday, May 1, 2017.

Criminal Law—Expert Testimony—Jury Access to Exhibits.

This case required the Colorado Supreme Court to address two issues it recently addressed in two other cases, People v. Jefferson, 2017 CO 35, and Venalonzo v. People, 2017 CO 9. Specifically, the court resolved (1) whether a trial court commits plain error when it fails to limit, sua sponte, a jury’s access to recorded statements during jury deliberations, and (2) whether a trial court abuses its discretion when it allows a police officer to testify as a lay witness about the concept of grooming in the context of sexual predation. The court held that a trial court does not commit plain error when it does not limit a jury’s access to recorded statements without an objection, and that a trial court abuses its discretion when it allows a witness to testify about grooming without qualifying that witness as an expert. The court therefore reversed defendant’s convictions and remanded the case for a new trial.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Testimony that Could Not Be Offered Without Specialized Knowledge is Expert Testimony

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Venalonzo v. People on Monday, February 6, 2017.

 Criminal Trials—Evidence.

In this case, the Colorado Supreme Court considered the admissibility of testimony under  CRE 701 and 702. The court held that in determining whether  testimony is lay testimony under CRE 701 or expert testimony under CRE 702, trial  courts must look to the basis for the opinion. If the witness provides testimony that could be expected to be based on an ordinary person’s experiences or knowledge, then the witness is offering lay testimony. If, on the other hand, the witness provides testimony that could not be offered without specialized experiences, knowledge, or training, then the witness is offering expert testimony. Applying that rule in this case, the court concluded that some portions of a forensic interviewer’s testimony were admissible as lay opinion but that others were inadmissible expert testimony in the guise of lay opinion. The court also addressed the admissibility of testimony under CRE 608(a) and concluded that some of the interviewer’s and the victim’s mother’s testimony was inadmissible under CRE 608(a) as it improperly bolstered the credibility of the child victims.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Supreme Court: Officer who Testified About Blood Transfer Should Have Been Qualified as Expert

The Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in People v. Ramos on Monday, February 6, 2017.

Criminal Law—Expert Testimony.

This case, like the recently announced case Venalonzo v. People, 2016 CO 9, required the Supreme Court to address the difference between lay and expert testimony. Specifically, it required the court to resolve one issue—whether an ordinary person would be able to differentiate reliably between blood castoff (i.e., blood droplets from waving a hand around) and blood transfer (i.e., blood transferred by physical contact). Applying the test announced in Venalonzo, the court held that an ordinary person would not be able to testify reliably about the difference between blood cast-off and blood transfer. Therefore, the court affirmed the court of appeals’ holding that the trial court abused its discretion by not qualifying the police detective’s blood testimony as expert testimony.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Expert Testimony Relating to Victim’s Veracity Erroneously Admitted

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Relaford on Thursday, June 30, 2016.

Sexual Assault—Child—Testimony—Truthfulness—Bad Acts or Character Evidence—Colorado Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act.

A jury convicted Relaford of 27 offenses related to sexual assaults against two child victims, and the trial court sentenced him to an aggregate indeterminate term of 204 years to life under the Colorado Sex Offender Lifetime Supervision Act of 1998 (SOLSA), CRS §§ 18-1.3-1001 to -1012.

Relaford appealed the judgment and sentence. He argued that the therapist’s testimony regarding the circumstances in which a child might fabricate claims of sexual assault and her statement that she had never encountered sexual assault fabrications in any other circumstances constituted impermissible opinion testimony that the victims in this case were not lying.  The Court of Appeals agreed, and this evidence should not have been presented to the jury. However, because defense counsel failed to object to the testimony, the error was not obvious, and there was substantial evidence to prove Relaford’s guilt, it was not plain error to admit the therapist’s statements.

Relaford also argued that the trial court reversibly erred in admitting numerous sex toys and pornography found at his home. Although Relaford conceded that the admission of evidence regarding sex toys that the children identified was proper, he argued that the trial court erred in admitting evidence of the other sex toys and the pornography that the children didn’t identify because it was irrelevant and constituted impermissible bad acts or character evidence. Some of this evidence probably should not have been admitted, but any error in this respect was harmless, given the substantial evidence to prove Relaford’s guilt and the prosecutions argument to the jury not to consider this evidence as other bad acts.

Additionally, Relaford contended that SOLSA is unconstitutional. Relaford did not raise the constitutional challenges at trial, and the Court thus declined to review them. However, the Court stated that even if it were to exercise its discretion to review Relaford’s constitutional claims it would conclude that he is not entitled to relief; several divisions of the Court previously considered constitutional challenges to SOLSA and concluded it is constitutional.

The judgment and sentence were affirmed.

Summary provided courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Defense Counsel Did Not Err by Refusing to Call Expert Witness who Agreed with Prosecution

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Garner on Thursday, December 17, 2015.

First-Degree Murder—Ineffective Assistance of Counsel—Rebuttal Expert—Jury Instructions—Conflict of Interest.

Defendant was charged and found guilty of first-degree murder for stabbing a female friend to death when the two were most likely high on methamphetamine.

On appeal, defendant contended that the post-conviction court erred in denying his motion because the evidence at the post-conviction hearing established that his trial counsel was ineffective. Defense counsel was not ineffective for failing to call a rebuttal expert to testify regarding the cause of the victim’s death after defendant’s first expert changed her mind and agreed with the prosecution’s expert witnesses. Further, because the subject of hypothermia as a potential cause of death was not central to the case, defense counsel did not err in failing to call an expert on this issue. It was also reasonable for defense counsel to forgo calling a methamphetamine expert, who could cause more harm than good to defendant’s case, and to forego calling another inmate, Mr. K, when this witness had three felony convictions and two other inmates had already been used as impeachment witnesses to rebut the prosecution’s witness. It was also not a conflict of interest for defense counsel to represent defendant after previously having represented Mr. K, who was a potential witness for defendant.

Defendant also asserted that his attorney erred by not objecting to the jury instructions, which only contained a partial instruction regarding intoxication law. However, voluntary intoxication was not consistent with defendant’s theory of the case, which was that he did not kill the victim. Therefore, although defense counsel should have asked to include a complete instruction regarding intoxication law since the prosecution had introduced the instruction, it was not err in failing to do so given the theory of the case. In light of these considerations, the post-conviction court correctly determined that defendant had not shown an actual conflict of interest adversely affecting his counsel’s performance.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Scope of Police Officer’s Testimony Within Knowledge of Average Computer User

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Froehler on Thursday, July 30, 2015.

Child Pornography—Lay Testimony—Personal Observations—Specialized Knowledge.

Froehler accidently left a flash drive on a public business computer at a hotel. The flash drive was recovered by two hotel guests, who opened it and found that some of the files contained child pornography. They turned over the flash drive to hotel security, who contacted police. A jury found Froehler guilty of sexual exploitation of a child.

On appeal, Froehler contended that the trial court abused its discretion by allowing the detective who investigated the case to give improper lay testimony. The detective testified about her personal observations of the dates the files on the flash drive were created and modified. Admission of the detective’s lay testimony was proper under CRE 701 because the method she used to view the dates did not require any specialized knowledge or familiarity with computers beyond that of the average lay person. The detective’s testimony about the ImageScan software program used to search Froehler’s home computers, however, was improperly admitted as lay testimony because this testimony did require specialized knowledge about the software. Nevertheless, its admission was harmless because no child pornography had been found on Froehler’s home computers and this evidence had no direct bearing on whether Froehler “knowingly possessed” the child pornography on the flash drive. The judgment was affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.

Tenth Circuit: No Error for Court to Find One Side’s Expert Witnesses More Persuasive

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its opinion in Mathis v. Huff & Puff Trucking, Inc. on Tuesday, June 2, 2015.

Melvin Mathis was injured in February 2008 when the car he was driving was struck by a Huff & Puff truck driven by Donald Stewart. Mr. Stewart was at fault for the accident; he was driving too fast for the icy road conditions and the truck he was driving should not have been in the left lane. Mr. Mathis was awake and alert after the accident. He was transported by ambulance to a local hospital, where the emergency room doctor found no evidence of head trauma but diagnosed him with neck and back strains. Mr. Mathis sought further treatment from Dr. Schulze, who conducted MRIs of his back and neck and noted Mr. Mathis suffered multiple areas of sprain to his spine from the collision. Dr. Schulze referred Mr. Mathis to Dr. Cook, a neurosurgeon, because the accident had aggravated Mr. Mathis’s preexisting disc lesions. Dr. Cook treated Mr. Mathis non-surgically for several months and Mr. Mathis stopped treatment in May 2009.

Mr. Mathis returned to Dr. Cook’s office in April 2011 where he saw a different doctor, Dr. Beer. In the interim, Mr. Mathis had worked as a nighttime fuel delivery person, where he performed physically demanding tasks and was under no work restrictions. When he first evaluated Mr. Mathis, Dr. Beer performed repeat MRIs of his spine, which were essentially unchanged from those taken in 2008. Dr. Beer performed fusion surgery on Mr. Mathis’s spine to relieve his chronic pain.

In February 2012, Mr. Mathis filed this negligence action in federal district court, and an eight day bench trial was held in July 2013. Mr. Mathis alleged the accident caused permanent injuries to his spine, a mild traumatic brain injury (MTBI), emotional distress, and pain and suffering. The district court heard conflicting testimony regarding the extent of Mr. Mathis’s injuries. The district court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, rejecting Mr. Mathis’s claims that his spine was permanently injured by the accident and that he suffered an MTBI, and awarding Mr. Mathis damages for reasonable out-of-pocket medical expenses, past emotional distress, pain and suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, and loss of income.

Two weeks after trial, Mr. Mathis’s counsel learned that the judge’s law clerk’s husband was retained by AIG to monitor the proceedings. After learning about the law clerk’s relationship, Mr. Mathis’s counsel filed a motion for a new trial and a motion to alter or amend the judgment, arguing the evidence did not support the district court’s ruling that Mr. Mathis suffered no MTBI and only minor spinal injuries; the court erroneously relied on the testimony of a biomechanical engineer; the law clerk had an undisclosed conflict of interest; and the judgment should be amended or altered to correct an inadequate damages award based on the trial court’s errors. When these motions were denied, Mr. Mathis appealed.

The Tenth Circuit first evaluated Mr. Mathis’s claims that the district court erroneously concluded he suffered only mild spinal injuries and no MTBI. Evaluating for clear error, the Tenth Circuit found that trial evidence supported the court’s conclusion that the spinal injuries were not significant. The court evaluated conflicting evidence from medical records, expert testimony, and lay witness testimony, and determined that Mr. Mathis’s spinal sprains resolved in approximately mid-2009. Although Mr. Mathis pointed to testimony contrary to the court’s finding, this does not imply clear error since such cases generally have conflicting testimony and the court’s duty is to sift through the competing narratives. The Tenth Circuit similarly found no clear error in the trial court’s finding that Mr. Mathis did not suffer an MTBI, since it weighed the evidence and determined that the defense evidence was more persuasive.

Next turning to Mr. Mathis’s criticisms of the biomechanical engineer, Dr. Hayes, the Tenth Circuit noted that Mr. Mathis failed to preserve his objections to Dr. Hayes’s testimony and therefore it would only evaluate for plain error. Mr. Mathis challenged only whether Dr. Hayes’s testimony exceeded the scope of his expertise. Defendants argued Mr. Mathis forfeited any objection because he failed to object to the defense’s pre-trial witness statement and did not object during the questioning of Dr. Hayes at trial. The Tenth Circuit agreed.

The Tenth Circuit turned then to Mr. Mathis’s motion for a new trial. Mr. Mathis argued the judge should have recused after the law clerk’s husband was retained by AIG to monitor the trial, averring the relationship created a conflict under Canon 3(F) of the Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees. The Tenth Circuit found no abuse of discretion by the district court because there was no actual conflict under Canon 3(F) and no appearance of impropriety. Canon 3(F) specifies that law clerks should not perform any official duties in cases in which their spouse has a financial interest, is acting as a lawyer in the proceeding, or has an interest that could be affected by the outcome of the proceeding. In this case, the husband had no financial or other interest in the outcome of the proceeding and was not acting as a lawyer for a party, but was merely retained by defendants’ insurer to monitor the proceedings. As to the appearance of impropriety, the law clerk informed the judge of her relationship prior to the first day her husband monitored the court proceedings. After that, the judge conducted all her own research and wrote the opinion by herself. Although the Tenth Circuit noted the better approach would have been for the judge to inform the parties of the relationship and for the clerk to stop attending the trial, there was no impropriety in the handling of the proceedings.

The district court’s judgment was affirmed.

Colorado Court of Appeals: Admission of “Overkill” Testimony Acceptable Despite Lack of Findings Regarding Scientific Significance

The Colorado Court of Appeals issued its opinion in People v. Ruibal on Thursday, May 7, 2015.

Domestic Violence—Limiting Instruction—Expert Testimony—CRE 404(b)—CRS § 18-6-801.5—Hearsay—Photographs.

Defendant Ruibal appealed his judgment of conviction and sentence to forty years imprisonment entered on a jury verdict finding him guilty of second-degree murder. The victim, D.P., was fatally beaten during a December weekend in 2007. She died in the apartment that she and Ruibal shared. The prosecution theorized that, in an act of domestic violence, Ruibal assaulted D.P. in their apartment on a Saturday evening, and that D.P. died on Sunday or Monday from injuries sustained in the beating.

On appeal, Ruibal contended that the trial court erred when it did not give a limiting instruction during the testimony of the prosecution’s domestic violence expert. CRE 404(b) and CRS § 18-6-801.5 permit a trial court to admit evidence of other acts of domestic violence between a defendant and a victim if offered to show common plan, scheme, design, identity, modus operandi, motive, guilty knowledge, or some other purpose. In such cases, the trial court must instruct the jury as to the limited purpose for which the other acts evidence is admissible. Here, the expert did not specifically reference any prior acts of domestic violence between Ruibal and D.P. She merely explained the general dynamics that exist in abusive relationships. Based on these circumstances, the trial court did not err when it declined to give a limiting instruction during the testimony of the prosecution’s domestic violence expert.

Ruibal also contended that the trial court abused its discretion when it permitted a pathologist to present expert testimony regarding victim “overkill.” Although the trial court should have entered specific findings on the reliability of the underlying scientific theories, the court overruled Ruibal’s objection to the overkill evidence, implicitly determining that the pathologist’s expert testimony was based on a reliable scientific principle. Further, the trial court did not err when it permitted the expert to testify that his opinion was based on his experience.

Ruibal further contended that the trial court abused its discretion when it admitted five gruesome color photographs that showed the inside of D.P.’s head. The photographs were relevant to show the extent of injuries and the mental state of intent, which outweighed any prejudicial impact. Therefore, the trial court did not err in admitting these photographs. The judgment and sentence were affirmed.

Summary and full case available here, courtesy of The Colorado Lawyer.