Expert Witness – Ghost Busters

Andrew Funkhouser was tried and convicted for selling cocaine.  On appeal, the Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction and his sentence of prison for 30 years. State v. Funkhouser, 729 S.W.2d 43 (Mo. App. 1987). On a petition for post-conviction relief, Funkhouser asserted that he was deprived of his Sixth Amendment right to effective counsel. Funkhouser v. State, 779 S.W.2d 30 (Mo. App. 1989).

One of the alleged grounds of ineffectiveness was his lawyer’s failure to object to the prosecutor’s cross-examination of a defense expert witness, clinical psychologist Frederick Nolen, on Nolan’s belief in ghosts. Id. at 32. On direct examination, Nolen testified that he had published or presented on multiple personalities, hypnosis, and ghosts.

On cross-examination, the prosecution inquired of Nolan about his theory of ghosts:

“Q. Doctor, I believe that you’ve done some work in the theory of ghosts, is that right?

A. Yes.

Q. I believe you told me that some of that work you’d based on your own experiences, is that correct?

A. Yes.

Q. You also told me you have lived in a haunted house for 13 years, is that right?

A. Yes.

Q. You have seen the ghost, is that correct?

A. Yes.”

Id. at 32-33. Funkhouser asserted that the cross-examination was improper because his expert witness was examined on his religious beliefs, and his counsel was ineffective for failing to object. Id. at 33.  The Missouri Court of Appeals disagreed. Counsel are permitted to cross-examine an adversary’s expert witness

“in any reasonable respect that will test his qualifications, credibility, skill or knowledge and the value and accuracy of his opinions.”

The court held that any failure to object could not be incompetence because the examination was proper. Id.

So there you have it: wacky beliefs systems are fair game for cross-examination of expert witnesses, at least in the “Show-Me” state.

And this broad scope of cross-examination is probably a good thing because almost anything seems to go in Missouri. The Show-Me state has been wiping up the rear in the law of expert witness admissibility. Missouri Revised Statutes contains a version of the Federal Rule of Evidence 702, which goes back to the language before the federal statutory revision in 2000:

Expert witness, opinion testimony admissible–hypothetical question not required, when.

490.065. 1. In any civil action, if scientific, technical or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue, a witness qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify thereto in the form of an opinion or otherwise.

In January 2016, the Missouri state senate passed a bill that would bring the Missouri standard in line with the current federal court rule of evidence. Most of the Republican senators voted for the bill; none of the Democrats voted in favor of the reform. Chris Semones, Missouri: One Step Closer to Daubert,” in Expert Witness Network (Jan. 26, 2016).

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