Criminal Defendant Can Present Expert Testimony as to Voluntariness or Reliability of His Confession

The first substantive post of this fourth year of this blog is another guest post on a criminal law decision by my colleague Jeffrey A. Shooman, another member of my firm’s Appellate Practice Group.

State v. Granskie, 433 N.J. Super. 44 (App. Div. 2013).  In this case, the Appellate Division buttoned up a line of precedent concerning the admissibility of expert testimony with respect to the reliability of criminal defendants’ confessions.  Defendant was suspected of committing sexual assault and murder.  Two of his friends confessed to the crime but they did not implicate defendant.  A few days later, however, while in jail on an unrelated warrant, defendant confessed.  Before trial, defendant argued that his confession was involuntary and unreliable because he was suffering from severe heroin withdrawal symptoms at the time he confessed.

The trial judge held that defendant could employ an expert to testify (both at a Miranda hearing and at trial) that he was addicted to heroin and was experiencing withdrawal when he confessed, and that the expert could also testify that the effects of withdrawal “were consistent with his claim that he was giving an unreliable statement at the time,” “given his history of issues with heroin dependence.”  The trial judge relied on State v. King, 387 N.J. Super. 522 (App. Div. 2006), concluding that the testimony was admissible to explain defendant’s mental disorder “and to explain why someone suffering from heroin withdrawal might confess to  a crime as a result of the effect of the withdrawal symptoms . . . .”  However, the trial judge ruled that the expert could not opine on whether the defendant’s statement was reliable or unreliable.

The state sought leave to appeal, which was granted.  In an opinion by Judge Reisner, the Appellate Division affirmed the ruling below.  The court largely relied on King, which had held that a defendant could proffer expert testimony concerning mental illness and explain to the jury why someone with certain types of mental illnesses may be more vulnerable to giving a false confession.  King, in turn, derived from the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Crane v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 683 (1986), which held that the defendant had a constitutional right to present evidence concerning “the physical and psychological environment in which the confession was obtained.”  Id. at 684.  The core of Judge Reisner’s holding was in keeping with “the bedrock principle that, to have a meaningful opportunity to attack the credibility of his confession, a defendant must be able to present relevant testimony that will assist the jury in its evaluation of the confession’s reliability.”  Judge Reisner wrote that the instant case illustrates the importance of such testimony, as the State’s case rested almost exclusively on defendant’s confession.

The court cabined its holding, however, stating that the expert “may not testify to factors within the ken of the juror.”  For instance, an expert cannot testify that the defendant confessed to a crime he did not commit.  The ultimate question of reliability is either for the judge at the Miranda hearing, or for the jury at trial.

In sum, the court reaffirmed its precedent in King, which was grounded in Crane, that courts are to give great leeway to criminal defendants who attack the reliability of their confessions, where they seek to present expert testimony outside the ordinary ken of the average juror.