Family Law Keyed to Weisberg

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Hawthorne v. State

Citation. Hawthorne v. State, 285 Ga. App. 196, 648 S.E.2d 387, 2007 Ga. App. LEXIS 473, 2007 Fulton County D. Rep. 1435 (Ga. Ct. App. Apr. 27, 2007)

Brief Fact Summary. Appellant appeals the murder trial of her husband, claiming that an expert witness should have been permitted to testify about battered-woman syndrome.

Synopsis of Rule of Law. Jurisdictions are divided on the admissibility of expert testimony regarding battered-woman syndrome. To be admissible, expert testimony must meet three criteria: 1) the expert is qualified to give an opinion on the subject matter; 2) the state of the art or scientific knowledge permits a reasonable opinion to be given by the expert; 3) the subject matter of the expert opinion is so related to some science, profession, business, or occupation as to be beyond the understanding of the average layman.

Facts. Appellant’s first trial for the murder of her husband was overturned. In this second trial, appellant argues that the trial court erred in disallowing testimony of a clinical psychologist who would have testified as an expert with regard to battered women’s syndrome.

Issue. Is expert testimony regarding battered women’s syndrome admissible in a murder trial in which the defendant claims self-defense?

Held. Such testimony is permissible if the court determines that expert is qualified and the expert’s methodology is generally accepted.
Three basic criteria are required to permit the testimony of an expert witness: 1) the expert is qualified to give an opinion on the subject matter; 2) the state of the art or scientific knowledge permits a reasonable opinion to be given by the expert; 3) the subject matter of the expert opinion is so related to some science, profession, business, or occupation as to be beyond the understanding of the average layman.

Authorities disagree as to the admissibility of this type of expert testimony both on the question of if the area is sufficiently developed and if battered-woman syndrome is beyond the knowledge and experience of most laymen. This Court agrees with the view that jurors would not normally understand why a person suffering from the syndrome would not leave her mate, contact police or friends, and would fear increased aggression against herself.

In the instant case there was no determination as to the psychologist’s qualifications and if her methodology is generally accepted. The trial court must make these determinations.

Appellee alleges that the testimony is inadmissible because is goes to appellant’s mental state, and would only be admissible in a not guilty by reason of insanity plea. However, the testimony, if admissible, would aid the jury in determining the circumstances that could make appellant reasonably believe that deadly force was necessary in her self-defense.

Discussion. This Court acknowledged that battered-woman syndrome was a subject outside the understanding of the average layman, but remanded the case so that the trial court could determine if the expert witness was qualified, and if her methodology was generally acceptable.