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Law School Case Brief

People v. Kowalski - 492 Mich. 106, 821 N.W.2d 14 (2012)

Rule:

The threshold inquiry—whether the proposed expert testimony will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue—is not satisfied if the proffered testimony is not relevant or does not involve a matter that is beyond the common understanding of the average juror. Interpreting the nearly identical language in the federal counterpart to MRE 702, the Supreme Court of the United States explained that helping the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue presents a question of relevance because expert testimony which does not relate to any issue in the case is not relevant and, ergo, non-helpful. Similarly, if the average juror does not need the aid of expert interpretation to understand a fact at issue, then the proffered testimony is not admissible because it merely deals with a proposition that is not beyond the ken of common knowledge. These considerations of relevancy and the need for expertise are independent of the other requirements of MRE 702. Thus, even proposed expert testimony that is offered by a qualified expert and based on reliable scientific data and methods may be properly excluded if it is not relevant to the facts of the case or is offered for a proposition that does not require the aid of expert interpretation. 

Facts:

In May 2008, the brother and sister-in-law of defendant, Jerome Walter Kowalski, were found dead in their home. Defendant was charged with both murders. Defendant confessed to the murders during the last interview session with police investigators, which followed a night in jail. Defendant stated that he went to his brother's home, walked into the kitchen, and murdered his brother and sister-in-law after a brief verbal exchange. At trial in Michigan state court, defendant filed a motion to suppress his statements to the police, which the circuit court denied after conducting a Walker hearing. Defendant then filed a notice of intent to call two expert witnesses regarding the occurrence of false confessions and the police interrogation techniques likely to generate them as well as the psychological characteristics of defendant that allegedly made him more susceptible to these techniques. On a motion from the prosecutor, the circuit court excluded the proposed expert testimony. The circuit court ruled that the testimonies were unreliable and would not assist the trier of fact. Defendant sought interlocutory leave to appeal the circuit court's decision excluding the expert testimony. The Court of Appeals of Michigan affirmed. Defendant appealed.

Issue:

Did the court abuse its discretion when it excluded the testimony of the two experts?

Answer:

Yes, with regard to testimony regarding defendant's psychological characteristics.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court held that because the claim of a false confession was beyond the common knowledge of the ordinary person, expert testimony was admissible under MRE 702 when it met the other requirements of MRE 702. It held that the circuit court did not abuse its discretion by excluding the expert testimony regarding the published literature on false confessions and police interrogations on the basis of its determination that the testimony was not reliable, even though the subject of the proposed testimony was beyond the common knowledge of the average juror. Nevertheless, the circuit court did abuse its discretion by excluding the proffered testimony regarding defendant's psychological characteristics because it failed to consider this evidence separately from the properly excluded general expert testimony and therefore failed to properly apply both MRE 702 and MRE 403 to that evidence. Accordingly, the court remanded the case to the circuit court for it to determine whether evidence of defendant's psychological characteristics was sufficiently reliable for admissibility under MRE 702

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