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Sanford v. Russell

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

May 16, 2019




         Presently before the Court are motions by the defendants challenging the use at trial of testimony by four of the plaintiff's expert witnesses, in which the defendants variously argue that the experts are unqualified, or their opinions are unreliable or irrelevant (or all three). The substance and admissibility of each expert's opinion is discussed in turn below.


         As discussed in the several opinions issued in this case, plaintiff Davontae Sanford filed this case in 2017, alleging that he was wrongfully convicted of a quadruple homicide allegedly committed when he was fourteen years old. He contends that defendants Michael Russell and James Tolbert - Detroit police officers - manufactured evidence against him, and used that evidence to coerce a confession from him, to prosecute him for the homicides, and to coerce a guilty plea from him during his bench trial in 2008. After he spent over eight years in prison, another person confessed to committing the murders, and a state police investigation uncovered evidence that Sanford's confession and ensuing guilty plea were the product of misconduct by the defendants. His conviction was set aside and all charges against him were dismissed in 2016.

         The defendants challenge the opinions of Dr. Jeffrey Aaron, a psychologist who will testify to the psychological damage suffered by Sanford caused by his wrongful conviction and eight years in prison. Dr. Aaron also intends to give opinions on the reliability of Sanford's confession and the nature of the interrogation conducted by defendant Russell. The defendants also move to exclude the testimony of David Balash, a police practices expert. They also challenge the opinions of Dr. Allison Redlich, a psychologist and criminologist, who intends to offer testimony about false confessions and false guilty pleas. Last, the defendants move to prevent testimony from James Trainum, another police practices expert, who intends to comment on the propriety of the defendants' actions during the investigation and prosecution of the plaintiff.


         These motions invoke Federal Rule of Evidence 702 and cases interpreting that rule. The following general principles govern all four of these motions.

         As a general matter, “expert” testimony consists of opinions or commentary grounded in “specialized knowledge, ” that is, knowledge that is “beyond the ken of the average juror.” See United States v. Rios, 830 F.3d 403, 413 (6th Cir. 2016), cert. denied sub nom. Casillas v. United States, 137 S.Ct. 1120 (2017), and cert. denied, 138 S.Ct. 2701 (2018); see also Fed. R. Evid. 702. Such testimony is governed by Evidence Rule 702, which was modified in December 2000 to reflect the Supreme Court's emphasis in Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals., Inc., 509 U.S. 579 (1993), and Kumho Tire Co. v. Carmichael, 526 U.S. 137 (1999), on the trial court's gate-keeping obligation to conduct a preliminary assessment of relevance and reliability whenever a witness testifies to an opinion based on specialized knowledge. Rule 702 states:

         A witness who is qualified as an expert by knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education may testify in the form of an opinion or otherwise if:

(a) the expert's scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will help the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue;
(b) the testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
(c) the testimony is the product of reliable principles and methods; and
(d) the expert has reliably applied the principles and methods to the facts of the case.

         The language added by the 2000 amendment - subparagraphs (b) through (d) - restates Daubert's insistence on the requirements that an expert's opinion be based on a foundation grounded in the actual facts of the case, that the opinion is valid according to the discipline that furnished the base of special knowledge, and that the expert appropriately “fits” the facts of the case into the theories and methods he or she espouses. See Daubert, 509 U.S. at 591-93.

         A. Dr. Jeffrey Aaron

         Dr. Jeffrey Aaron is a licensed clinical and forensic psychologist from Virginia who is employed in private practice and with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services. It appears that the plaintiff intends to call him as a damages expert. He intends to offer the following opinions - detailed in his 30-page report - at trial:

1. Mr. Sanford suffered substantial psychological harm from each of the following: his arrest and interrogation; his experiences as a defendant in the legal process; the finding of guilt and his sentencing; [and] his experiences [while] incarcerated over the time from his arrest in September 2007 until his exoneration and release in June 2016.
2. The harm Mr. Sanford suffered from these events is distinct from the consequences of other stressful and traumatic events that he has experienced. However, the multiple traumas he experienced in prison almost certainly had more damaging effects than they otherwise would have as a consequence of his prior traumatic experiences.
3. The harm Mr. Sanford suffered from these events has a substantial and ongoing effect on his mental health, his capacity for subjective pleasure, his interpersonal relationships, and his general capacity and functioning.
4. The harm Mr. Sanford suffered from these events will almost certainly continue far into the future. In order to minimize this harm, Mr. Sanford will require extensive and intensive ongoing supports. Without such supports, his prognosis for adequate functioning, the resolution of his mental health problems, and for a positive quality of life is poor.

         Report of Dr. Jeffrey Aaron dated July 26, 2018, ECF No. 130-9, PageID.4383.

         Dr. Aaron based his conclusions on 12 hours of personal interviews with the plaintiff, interviews with other persons who know him, an extensive catalog of educational, correctional, and medical records and evaluations of the plaintiff by other professionals spanning more than 17 years, and a review of court records from the criminal proceeding.

         The defendants do not challenge Dr. Aaron's qualifications generally as a clinical or forensic psychologist, the methods he employed in reaching his conclusions, or his application of his methods to the facts of the case. Instead, they challenge on relevancy grounds the propriety of admitting certain statements from the report indicating that (1) the plaintiff's confession was unreliable and false; (2) the interrogation by defendant Russell was “intense, stressful, frightening, and confusing” for the plaintiff; and (3) the plaintiff “was not able to engage in a normal adolescent social experience, such as going to high school and graduating, ” and he “would not have had to readjust to leaving prison and re-entering society had he not pled guilty to the Runyon Street Murder.”

         The defendants' arguments fall into two broad categories. They first challenge what they perceive to be an opinion by Dr. Aaron that Sanford's confession was false. Second, they contend that allowing Aaron to expound on details of Sanford's life and his subjective feelings before, during, and after his incarceration would not be grounded in any specialized knowledge, since the jury does not need help to understand Sanford's own testimony about those things, which he presumably will offer, and, moreover, any opinion that Sanford would not have gone to prison if he had not been wrongly convicted is entirely speculative.

         Taking the second argument first, Dr. Aaron's discussion about the plaintiff's past and present life situations, and his feelings about his prison experience, is not simply an untethered exegesis on the plaintiff's state of mind. Instead, those discussions provide the background for the opinion on damages. Isolating that component of the report, as the defendants have done in their argument, ignores the requirement that an expert's opinion must be based on the actual facts of the case. See Lee v. Smith & Wesson Corp., 760 F.3d 523, 529 (6th Cir. 2014) (Keith, J. dissenting) (“The ‘relevancy' prong of Rule 702 requires that an expert's theory adequately ‘fit' the facts of the case. Expert testimony that does not fit the facts does not relate to an issue in the case and, therefore, is not relevant.”) (citing Daubert v. Merrell Dow Pharmaceuticals., Inc., 509 U.S. 579, 591 (1993)).

         Challenging the opinion on the reliability of the confession, the defendants argue that (1) Dr. Aaron's testimony is irrelevant because whether the plaintiff's confession was true or false has no bearing on his section 1983 claims; on those claims he must show - and only needs to show - that the confession was procured via exertion of unconstitutionally coercive means, regardless of its truth or falsity; (2) the tactics condemned by Dr. Aaron are not pertinent to an assessment of whether the defendants' conduct violated constitutional standards, because various techniques that he cites have been held not to rise to the level of coercion (at least when considered piecemeal); (3) the postulated criteria for evaluating confessions is not scientifically sound because there is no scientifically verifiable means of predicting false confessions, nor is there any way to test purported factors in a controlled setting or to calculate any error rate for the supposed predictors; (4) the questions whether the confession was coerced - the ultimate legal issue in the case - and whether the plaintiff confessed falsely, are exclusively reserved for the jury's determination, and expert testimony on those topics would merely invite them to take the expert's view instead of considering the evidence and the law and making up their own minds; and (5) Aaron is unqualified to opine about anything concerning false confessions because his background is in clinical and forensic psychology, and he has never conducted any experiments or published any studies on false confessions.

         Once again, it appears that the defendants' attempt to isolate the integrated components of Dr. Aaron's report, and then misconstrue those isolated elements that they do challenge. For instance, Dr. Aaron does not actually assert anywhere in his report that Sanford's confession was false. Instead, he states: “Dispositional variables that have been demonstrated to be associated with decreased reliability of statements made in interrogation and thus increased risk of false confession include developmental immaturity, intellectual limitations, and the presence of mental health problems.” Then he elaborates on “[t]he degree to which each of these was present in this case, ” i.e., the extent to which the plaintiff displayed those factors such as developmental immaturity, low intelligence, and psychological dysfunctions such as ADHD at the time of his arrest and interrogation. Therefore, the defendants' principal challenge to the report concerns an issue on which Dr. Aaron never expressed any expert view: whether the plaintiff in fact falsely confessed to the murders. Moreover, the recitation that the interrogation was “stressful” and “frightening” ...

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