Tennessee courts recognize that false confessions do sometimes occur. In a case where the State's case includes an out-of-court confession from the Defendant, that evidence must usually be addressed in some way by the defense, if it cannot be excluded. In the recent Tennessee case of State v. Mays, W2012-00607-CCA-R3-CD (Tenn.Crim.App. 3-7-2014), the defense in a felony murder by aggravated child abuse prosecution sought to introduce expert testimony from a forensic psychologist on the question of false confessions and the Defendant's vulnerability to making a false confession. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the trial court ruling permitting some of the testimony about false confession but excluding testimony about the Defendant's particular vulnerability to it.
In the Mays case, the Defendant was accused of inflicting fatal physical injury to a nineteen month old child. Medical evidence showed the child died as a result of internal organ damage probably caused by blunt force trauma to the abdomen. In support of their theory that the Defendant inflicted the injuries by punching the child in the stomach multiple times, the State introduced an out-of-court statement made by the Defendant during police questioning, in which the Defendant, after coming up with unlikely explanations, eventually told the police that he punched the child in the stomach twice because he was angry at her crying.
The Defense theory was that the Defendant's statement was false and that he did not actually know how the injuries occurred and did not punch the child. In support of their theory, the Defendant testified that his confession was false. In addition, the Defense introduced a forensic psychologist who was an expert on interrogation and confession. The trial court allowed the expert to testify about how interrogation works and how a false confession may occur. However, testimony about the Defendant's particular vulnerability was excluded.
The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the ruling. They noted that the excluded testimony was not very probative, as the expert did not offer a conclusion as to whether the confession was false, or a quantitative probability of whether it was false, or how comparatively vulnerable the Defendant was compared to the general population. In addition, as the expert's specific findings with regard to the Defendant were not available until after the trial was underway, the State would have no means of evaluating the expert's conclusions for possible rebuttal.
For more information on the use of expert testimony in a criminal trial, contact Hindman & Associates.