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State v. Odom

    Brief Fact Summary. The defendant, Ernest Odom (the “defendant”), was charged and convicted of possession of crack cocaine and with intent to distribute crack cocaine. A search warrant executed on the defendant’s residence revealed eighteen vials of crack cocaine in a bag inside a pillowcase.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. A qualified expert’s opinion may be offered into evidence if it relates to a subject that is not within the understanding of an average person of ordinary experience, education, and knowledge.

    Facts. On January 31, 1986, detectives executed a search warrant at the apartment of of the Defendant and C.W., a juvenile. During the search, Detective Humphrey found a bag containing eighteen vials of crack cocaine in the pillowcase on the bed. The defendant was charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession with intent to distribute. The State offered Detective Sergeant Ronald Tierney (“Detective Tierney”) as an expert in illegal narcotics during the trial. The defendant’s counsel objected, arguing the detective was unqualified because his experience was based on hearsay and could not help the jury. Detective Tierney was a member of the police force for over sixteen years and was with the narcotics squad for over nine years. He had participated in over 8,000 investigations and made approximately 4,000 arrests. Detective Tierney qualified as an expert 1,000 times previously. The trial court allowed him to testify. He was asked whether the defendant posses
    sed the drugs for his own use or in order to distribute them. Detective Tierney testified that it was his opinion that the drugs were possessed with the intent to distribute. The Appellate Division reversed the conviction and remanded for a new trial finding that the detective’s opinion was unhelpful and its probative value was outweighed by the potential for prejudice.

    Issue. Was the state’s expert opinion properly admitted by the trial court?
    Was the question asked of the expert and answered by him proper?

    Held. In reversing the judgment of the lower court, Justice Handler issued the opinion for the Supreme Court of New Jersey, finding that the expert’s opinion was properly admitted.
    While the expert did incorporate the defendant’s name into the hypothetical question, J. Handler found the error harmless and the questions asked and answered was not improper.


    Discussion. The Supreme Court of New Jersey found the expert’s opinion to be properly admitted because the subject matter was within the expert’s specialized knowledge, and beyond the knowledge of average persons. Further, the expert’s opinion with regard to intent to distribute did not express a view that the defendant was guilty of the crime charged.
    The Supreme Court of New Jersey set forth the standards governing expert testimony. An expert’s opinion should be expressed in language an average person can understand, with no unnecessary repetition of the language of the offense, and avoid using the defendant’s name. Further, the opinion should be expressed by presenting the expert with a hypothetical, while assuring that the jury and the witness understand the opinion can only be based on facts that are in evidence.


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