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The Use of Expert Testimony in Texas Misdemeanor Cases

Although misdemeanor crimes carry less severe punishments than felonies, Texas prosecutors still take these “lesser” cases seriously. Indeed, it is not uncommon for misdemeanor cases to involve the use of expert witnesses. Such witnesses are used to provide a jury with information and analysis that is outside the purview of a typical “lay” witness.

But expert testimony must also be carefully screened by the trial judge before it ever reaches the jury. Texas court rules normally require an expert witness meet three conditions before they can testify:

  1. The witness must be qualified to speak on their given subject.
  2. The witness must offer “reliable” testimony in a subject that actually requires expertise.
  3. The witness must offer relevant testimony that will actually assist the jury in deciding a case.

Austin Court Finds Testimony on “Duluth Model” in Misdemeanor Domestic Violence Case Was Admissible

A recent decision from the Texas Third District Court of Appeals, Orna v. State, addressed the second condition–reliability–in the context of a misdemeanor domestic violence case. Travis County prosecutors charged the defendant in this case with “assault causing bodily injury, family violence,” which is a Class A misdemeanor under Texas law. After a trial, the jury found the defendant guilty and sentenced him to 90 days in jail, which the judge suspended in favor of 9 months probation.

On appeal to the Third District, the defendant challenged the trial judge’s decision to permit a victim’s services counselor employed by the Austin Police Department to testify as an expert witness. The prosecution called the expert after the accusing witness–the defendant’s girlfriend–told the jury that “she did not want to press charges or to be at the trial” and that his alleged assault “was just an isolated event.”

court room photo

The counselor explained to the jury that victims of domestic violence often fall into a “cycle of violence” where an abuser uses certain tactics to maintain “power and control” over the victim. This is why victims are “reluctant to press charges” and do not wish to talk about their experiences. What the counselor described is known as the “Duluth model” based on the Minnesota city where these theories of behavior were developed.

The defendant argued the Duluth model was not a “legitimate field of expertise” that justified the counselor’s expert testimony. That is to say, it did not meet the reliability test required for expert testimony. The Third District disagreed. Affirming the defendant’s conviction, the appellate court noted it had previously approved of the same counselor’s expert testimony in another criminal case. In the prior decision, the Third District said the concepts underlying the Duluth model “were developed decades ago” and “have been studied for years.” Similarly, the Court concluded here the testimony was sufficiently reliable.

Speak with a Houston Misdemeanor Crimes Defense Lawyer Today

Misdemeanor cases are often more complicated than you might think. As the case above illustrates, it is not unusual for prosecutors to call in experts when they feel it can bolster an otherwise shaky case. This is why you need to work with an experienced criminal defense attorney who can assist you in preparing an adequate response. If you are facing misdemeanor charges, contact the Law Offices of Tad Nelson & Associates in Galveston, League City or Houston today to speak with someone right away.