MSC Opinion: Experts may testify regarding false confessions because such testimony may aid the jury in understanding the counter-intuitive concept, but only if the expert testimony is reliable
During a fourth and final police interview, the defendant confessed to murdering his brother and sister-in-law. At that point in the pretrial proceedings, the confession was the primary evidence implicating defendant in the murders. The trial court excluded the testimony of one expert witness (a social psychologist), who proposed to testify regarding police interrogation techniques and the existence of “false confessions.” The trial court also excluded the testimony of another expert witness (a clinical and forensic psychologist), who proposed to testify regarding defendant’s psychological profile, which he constructed from psychological tests and clinical interviews of defendant, as well as to testify that the circumstances of defendant’s confession were consistent with the literature on false confessions. The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court’s determination that the social psychologist’s testimony was unreliable and would not assist the trier of fact was not an abuse of discretion. The Court of Appeals also concluded that the trial court’s determination that the clinical and forensic psychologist’s testimony would not assist the trier of fact, after the testimony regarding false confessions was excluded, also did not constitute an abuse of discretion.
In a lead opinion authored by Justice Mary Beth Kelly, and joined by Chief Justice Young and Justice Zahra, the Michigan Supreme Court in People v. Kowalski determined that the claim of a false confession is “beyond the ken of common knowledge”—an inquiry that focuses on whether the proposed expert testimony is on a matter that would be commonly understood by the average person—and thus satisfied the threshold requirement under MRE 702 that the proposed expert testimony will “assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue.” Thus, the lead opinion held that expert testimony about false confessions is admissible when it satisfies the other requirements of MRE 702. But the lead opinion also affirmed the exclusion of the social psychologist’s testimony and of the portion of the clinical and forensic psychologist’s testimony that was based on false-confession research because the testimony was not reliable. Further, the Michigan Supreme Court held that exclusion of this testimony did not violate defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to present a defense. The Michigan Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower courts’ rulings excluding the clinical and forensic psychologist’s testimony regarding the psychological testing he performed and remanded the case to the trial court to determine its admissibility.