Hawthorne v. State of Florida

470 So.2d 770
Brief Filed: 2/83
Court: District Court of Appeal of Florida
Year of Decision: 1985

Read the full-text amicus brief (PDF, 611KB)

Issue

Whether expert testimony on battered women's syndrome is admissible to help establish claims of self-defense in a murder case — parallels New Jersey v. Kelly, 478 A.2d 364 (1984)

Index Topic

Battered Woman Syndrome: Expert Witnesses/Psychologists' Competency

Facts

Defendant shot and killed her husband. She was convicted of first-degree murder. On appeal, the court reversed her conviction, holding that evidentiary procedures had not been followed. At a second trial, the defendant sought to introduce expert testimony on battered women's syndrome. The court ruled the testimony inadmissible, and the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder. Again, the appellate court reversed, citing evidentiary procedures, as well as the finding that the expert testimony of Dr. Lenore Walker, a clinical psychologist, on battered women's syndrome should have been admitted in light of the fact that the specific defense asserted was self-defense, which requires a showing that the defendant reasonably believed it was necessary for her to use deadly force against her husband to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to herself or her children. The expert testimony would have been offered to aid the jury in interpreting the circumstances as they affected the reasonableness of defendant's belief. The appellate court instructed the trial court to analyze the admissibility of the expert testimony according to a three-part test: whether (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; and (3) the subject matter of the expert opinion is so related to some business, profession or occupation as to be beyond the understanding of the average layman. The court found that, as a matter of law, the third criterion was satisfied but remanded the case for an evaluation of the other two criteria. On remand, Dr. Walker's testimony was again found inadmissible. The court concluded that the depth of study in the field had not yet reached the point where an expert could give testimony about battered woman syndrome and its effects on the defendant with any degree of certainty.

APA's Position

APA filed an amicus brief arguing that: 1) the argument that the state of scientific knowledge support a reasonable expert opinion merely calls for proof that the expert's methodology is generally accepted by the relevant scientific community and does not require proof that the expert opinion be unanimous or that the expert's methodology is infallible; and (2) the methodology used by psychologists studying battered women is generally accepted by the relevant scientific community and, accordingly, the state of scientific knowledge supports a reasonable expert opinion on battered women's syndrome.

Results

The District Court of Appeal of Florida declined to follow APA's arguments and affirmed in part, holding that the trial court's refusal to admit Dr. Walker's testimony on battered woman syndrome was not an abuse of discretion under the circumstances. The case was remanded on improper evidentiary procedures, however, and the court stated that its holding did not preclude the reintroduction of Dr. Walker's testimony at a new trial.