Admitting Lay Opinion On "Intellectual Development And Psychological Maturity"

Can lay testimony be used for mental health issues? On a motion to transfer a juvenile to be prosecuted as an adult based, in part, on assessing whether it would serve the interests of justice given the juvenile's “intellectual development and psychological maturity,” admitting under FRE 701 testimony by lay witnesses “who spent limited time with Defendant” and had no “mental health training and did not use psychological assessment tools” because these witnesses “directly observed and interacted with Defendant,” in United States v. J.J., 704 F.3d 1219 (9th Cir. Jan. 9, 2013) (No. 12-30206)

The assessment of a person's maturity and psychological condition does not always require testimony by an expert witness. On many questions of psychology, such as the personality and maturity of a defendant, courts often find that expert opinion testimony is not indispensable. A recent case decided by the Ninth Circuit provides an interesting example of lay opinion testimony that addressed issues often left to the professional.

In the case, defendant J.J. was charged with second-degree murder. He was seventeen at the time of the offense, but as his prosecution advanced, the government sought to have him tried as an adult. In presenting the motion, the government also offerred the testimony of several lay witnesses -- the investigating police detective, a pretrial services officer, a probation officer, and a manager of a juvenile detention center. The testimony by the investigating detective was similar to the tenor of the testimony by the other lay witnesses:

At the hearing, the investigating police detective testified that Defendant was calm and unemotional during most of the detective's interactions with him and that Defendant appeared to track conversations and understand questions. The detective also testified that he has interacted with “a lot” of people in their late teens and early twenties and that he found Defendant's behavior, interactions, and maturity typical of that age group. Defendant did not seem immature for his age or appear to suffer from mental-health problems.
J.J., 704 F.3d at 1222.

As a result of the evidence presented at the hearing, the trial judge granted the government's motion. The defendant appealed under the collateral order exception. The defendant contended that testimony by the lay witnesses was "not sufficient evidence" for making an assessment of the defendant's psychological maturity. "Defendant points out," noted the circuit "that all witnesses admitted that they did not have mental health training and did not use psychological assessment tools." The defendant's argument was that the trial judge had erred under FRE 701 in accepting this lay testimony and that expert testimony -- psychological evaluation was a necessity under the juvenile transfer statute. J.J., 704 F.3d at 1220-21

The Ninth Circuit rejected both grounds of the defendant's appeal. The admission of the lay opinion in the defendant's case was not a violation of FRE 701, since "the witnesses all testified about their perceptions of Defendant without basing their opinions on scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge." In addition, the trial judge "found this [lay] testimony helpful in determining a fact in issue." J.J., 704 F.3d at 1222-23.

In making this observation about the possible role of FRE 701 in the juvenile transfer decision-process, the circuit noted that it

agree[d] with the conclusions of our sister circuits that a psychological evaluation is not a prerequisite to approving a transfer motion. Decisions such as United States v. Leon D.M. and United States v. A.R. are consistent with our more general precedent. We have ... affirmed transfer orders approved by courts that relied on lay-witness observations of a defendant's intellectual and psychological development. Even where a defendant presents expert testimony, the district court can reject an expert's conclusions based on other evidence in the record. We hold that the district court did not abuse its discretion in making the finding about Defendant's intellectual development by relying solely on lay-witness testimony.
J.J., 704 F.3d at 1223 (citing Brandon P., 387 F.3d at 977 (affirming a transfer order where the district court rejected a psychological expert's conclusions based in part on police-officer testimony that cast doubt on test results).

United States v. J.J., Juvenile Male, illustrates that expert testimony is often not necessary or helpful. The case also suggests a matter often overlooked in the presentation of psychological evidence. In terms of admissibility, a lay witness's testimony based on the witness's experience in observing human behavior can often provide evidence just as compelling as might be offered by the expert witness.

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