There have been a number of television series and movies that focus on the trial process and the use of experts. Whether an expert can be called to testify as to how witnesses remember and perceive events was explored in an unreported opinion from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called Raminder Haur v. State.
Ms. Haur, along with her husband, was convicted of first degree murder in the shooting death of the husband’s first wife. At trial, a witness who was driving by the scene testified to hearing gun shots, seeing a woman fall in the street and another woman run from the scene. A second eyewitness also described seeing a woman run from the scene of the shooting. The state prosecuted the victim’s ex-husband and Haur together, arguing that they conspired to murder the ex-wife and that Haur was the shooter. Evidence included a gun that was found in the husband’s car, which ballistics matched to bullets taken from the victim.
At trial, Ms. Haur’s counsel sought to call as an expert witness a social psychologist to testify “on the perception, encoding, storage and retrieval of witnesses events.” The defense theory was that the ex-husband was the actual shooter, who may have been disguised as a woman. The expert would supposedly testify that the witnesses could have been mistaken that the shooter was a woman. The trial judge would not let the defendant call that expert, which was challenged on appeal.
The appellate court held that the trial judge did not abuse his discretion in not allowing the expert to testify about memory and perception of witnesses. Expert testimony is appropriate in an area of science or a profession with which average jurors are not familiar, in order to assist the jury in evaluating the evidence. The appellate court agreed with the state that such an expert was not necessary, as it was within the purview of jurors to evaluate the credibility of witnesses using their own common sense and experience.
The Court noted that average jurors are aware that stress may affect a person’s memory and perception, and the jury did not need an expert to testify to that topic. Here, any stress for the witnesses would have been after they observed a woman running from the scene, when they realized the victim had been shot. The Court upheld the conviction.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.